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How does stress affect a teen's teeth?

Teeth grinding caused by stress can lead to headaches.
Teeth grinding caused by stress can lead to headaches.
iStockphoto/ariwasabi

Stress affects everyone, and teens -- with their developing bodies and various social pressures -- seem to get an extra helping. This can rear its head in a lot of noticeable ways. Some teens, for example, may have disrupted sleep patterns. Others may become regular users of alcohol, tobacco or drugs.

Some stress side effects have a way of going unnoticed by anyone else -- except the dentist. For example, teens who are stressed out may consciously or subconsciously deal with stress by tightly clenching their teeth during the day and grinding them at night, a condition known as bruxism.

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Over time, bruxism can wear down teeth and create orthodontic problems or changes in a teen's bite. Grinding can also cause problems with the joint that connects your jaw to your head, just below your ears, the temporomandibular joint (though you probably know it as TMJ). Eventually, this leads to "clicking" when the jaw moves, which can really drive a teen crazy -- especially if those jaws are moving because you just asked about his day. TMJ problems caused by grinding also result in discomfort on the sides of the face, difficulties chewing food and even headaches.

Teens who are under stress sometimes neglect their regular dental hygiene practices.
Teens who are under stress sometimes neglect their regular dental hygiene practices.
iStockphoto/mabe123

Stress can affect teenagers' teeth in other ways, too. Teens who are under stress may let their regular dental hygiene practices, like brushing and flossing, go by the wayside. This can lead to increased cavities and gum disease, especially if the teen in question also turns to sugar-laden foods or drinks when anxious.

According to WebMD, studies -- including one in the Journal of Periodontal Research -- have also shown that stress causes increased dental plaque, even when it's just short-term stress. It's possible that this is due to increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol or depressed immune functioning.

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You can, however, take some steps in these situations to help keep teens' teeth (and the rest of their bodies) healthy. First off, get your teen to a dentist for an examination. To address TMJ issues, dentists can provide mouth guards to be worn at night, which should prevent teenagers from grinding their teeth. Someone who's already developed a jaw disorder will probably need to see a specialist.

And, perhaps most importantly, figure out some strategies to help teens deal with the sources of their stress. That'll keep them smiling for years to come.

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Sources

  • Hugo, Fernando N. "Chronic Stress, Depression, and Cortisol Levels as Risk Indicators of Elevated Plaque and Gingivitis Levels in Individuals Aged 50 Years and Older." Journal of Periodontal Research. June, 2006. (Aug. 25, 2011) missouridentalimplants.com/app/download/1727822904/stressstudy.pdf
  • Pohlhaus, Steven R., DDS. "TMJ Disorders." (Aug. 15, 2011) http://www.stevedds.com/tmd.htm
  • TeensHealth. "TMJ Disorders." June 2009. (Aug. 15, 2011) http://kidshealth.org/teen/diseases_conditions/mouth/tmj.html
  • WebMD. "How Stress Affects Your Oral Health." Sept. 29, 2010. (Aug. 15, 2011) http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/healthy-teeth-2/stress-teeth

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