Dentists see increase in broken teeth, dental emergencies during pandemic

ByKate Larsen KGO logo
Wednesday, September 16, 2020
Bay Area dentists seeing more dental emergencies during pandemic
Dentists across the U.S., including in the Bay Area, have been treating more dental emergencies since the pandemic began than they have at any other point in their careers.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Dentists across the U.S. are treating more dental emergencies since the COVID-19 pandemic began than they have at any other point in their careers.

"I don't think either of us has ever seen anything like this," said Dr. Galen Wagnild, who practices dentistry with his wife, Dr. Kathy Mueller, in San Francisco. Both doctors are prosthodontists and are accustomed to dealing with complicated dental procedures.

"Our patients that we're seeing have very unusual fractures," said Dr. Mueller, pointing to a photo of an otherwise completely healthy tooth, split in half. "It's tremendous force to cause that kind of fracture of your own teeth."

Dr. Wagnild's patient Tom Goldman said he started waking up with mouth and tongue pain several months ago.

"I'm usually a pretty calm person, but I think that changed with the pandemic," he said. "I'm also a veteran. I have found that during this time, I've been having dreams about war that I haven't had for several years."

Goldman's newfound anxiety has created a dangerous and expensive dental condition.

"I think I'm going to have two extractions and a root canal and who knows from there -- that's up to Dr. Wagnild."

Dr. Wagnild said before the coronavirus pandemic, he would see teeth with big fillings and decay chip off. But now, he's seeing solid, healthy teeth fracturing.

"We used to see one every couple years maybe. Now we're seeing them routinely," said Dr. Wagnild.

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Dr. Nidhi Pai, a cosmetic and family dentist, said pre-pandemic, she would see one to two tooth fractures a week. Now she's seeing one to two a day, and in June and July she said was seeing four to five a day.

"Grown adult men and women, they just come to the office and they cry," said Dr. Pai, who says even otherwise healthy young adults, depressed and lonely in isolation, are coming in with dental emergencies.

"Breaking of the teeth is just a symptom of the mental health issue, which is just kind of manifesting in the mouth. And we have to very quickly deal with this because it is an epidemic of its own kind."

Dr. Mueller says, "We can't make the stress go away, but there are things people can do to protect their teeth. We'd rather do that than fix it after it's broken."

Mueller says headaches, facial pain, a sore jaw, and even loose teeth are all signs of clenching and grinding at night and even during the day.

"The goal should be lips together, teeth apart."

A night guard, which a dentist can prescribe, can prevent permanent damage and improve sleep.