Shock Absorbers

The toothache began one day in March, a dull but pesky pain concentrated in my lower right molars. I paused, mid-chew, surprised by the sensation. Unlike other parts of my body, my teeth have always been a reliable entity. When I was younger, my mom told me I was lucky because I had “good bacteria” in my mouth — as it so happens, I didn’t get my first cavity until last year, when I was 41.

At first, I chalked up the pain to an overzealous bout of snacking. But as the month wore on, the ache returned, always when I was eating. Something was wrong, I decided, very wrong, in my mouth.

Dr. Google helpfully suggested I had a cavity or a cracked tooth. In the worst case scenario, treatment for the latter involves extracting the tooth and replacing it with an implant. “A cracked tooth will never be 100 percent healed,” stated one website ominously. The prognosis worsened, I learned, the longer one waited to seek dental care.

So one cloudy April afternoon, I found myself in the dentist’s chair, staring out the window at the parking lot where the gray concrete mirrored the sky.

My dentist entered the room. I briefly explained my cracked tooth theory and made a nervous joke about how that first cavity must have been a harbinger of future dental disasters.

“Well, let’s see what’s going on here,” he said, then aimed an orange stick at the offending molars. “Bite down. Feel anything?”

I did not.

He finished examining my teeth, then took a lightning-fast X-ray that revealed no visible problems.

“No cracks?” I asked.

“None that I can see,” he said, then returned to the exam room, facing me. “How much stress are you under lately?” he asked.

“You know, just regular pandemic stress. Some writing deadlines have been stressful, I guess,” I responded, feeling sheepish. But that’s not even real stress, I thought. My family is together, we’re healthy — and if we’re not, we can go to a doctor or dentist and get medical care. In the meantime, COVID-19 patients in India can’t even get the lifesaving oxygen they need.

But stress is stress — no matter the reason. My dentist explained that his practice is seeing several patients weekly with symptoms like mine. People are presenting with toothaches, jaw pain, and even broken fillings. The cause: Excessive teeth clenching and grinding, caused by…tada…stress!

As I left the office with a recommendation for an oral night guard, I felt relieved but foolish. Buried in my brain was the headline to a months-old article about the pandemic’s negative impact on oral health. I’d skimmed it, thinking then that the article was interesting but didn’t apply to me.

Our bodies have worked overtime the past year to absorb and process pandemic-related stress — stress that’s still going, by the way. All of that angst has to go somewhere — and for some of us, our teeth became the shock absorbers, whether we realized it or not.

There’s no vaccine for stress, but a good support system and plenty of chocolate work wonders, I’ve found. I also highly recommend bird-watching (these new baby owlets are pretty cute).

And if you’re one of my teeth-grinding soulmates, know that I’m smiling at you in solidarity. With my mouth guard on, of course.

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