Social Anxiety Can Lead to Tooth Loss, Warn Tel Aviv Researchers

The socially anxious tend to grind their teeth, whether they realize it or not, Tel Aviv University researchers discover.

Yael Bugan

It's well known that harboring anger can lead to tooth-grinding. Now a team of Israeli scientists has found that social anxiety is a significant factor as well.

A study by Tel Aviv University researchers, published in the Journal of Oral Rehabilitation, finds that even brief bouts of anxiety experienced in social circumstances not rarely leads to bruxism, which is, teeth grinding or jaw clenching.

Beyond the unattractive aspect of the habit, it can lead to tooth decay and loss by simply eroding the enamel on one's teeth. And well before that extreme outcome, bruxism can cause jaw pain and even headaches, which can just make the underlying irritation or anxiety even worse.

Based on the research, led by Dr. Ephraim Winocur of the Department of Oral Rehabilitation at TAU's School of Dental Medicine and conducted by TAU doctoral student Roi Skopski in collaboration with researchers at Geha Mental Health Center in Petah Tikva, Israel - while social anxiety is usually a problem referred to mental health specialists, there are dental consequences.

The study was done by assessing answers to questionnaires given to 75 people in their early 30s, of whom 40 were diagnosed as having social phobia (fear of social situations). Of those, half were on antidepressants.

Nearly half (42%) of the subjects with social phobia were found (based on psychiatric and dental exams) had moderate to severe dental wear, compared with 28% of the non-phobic subjects. Intriguingly, 43% of the social-anxiety group reported "awake bruxism" – while awake (that contrasts with "sleep bruxism"), compared with just 3% of the control subjects.

The effects of gnashing one's teeth when awake or asleep can be quite dramatically different, one being that sleeping gnashers may well be noisy, while "awake bruxers" – whether or not they realize they're grinding their teeth – tend to do it more silently. Also, research has not found a correlation between anxiety levels and sleep bruxism, nor however has the possibility been ruled out.

In any case, in extreme cases, never mind eroding the enamel - gnashers can even, eventually, break their teeth. Another corollary of the condition can be gum erosion, leading to hypersensitive teeth.

Dr. Winocur is currently doing more research on the connection between post-traumatic stress disorder and bruxism: it has long been known that PTSD sufferers grind their teeth, but clearer work needs doing on awake/sleep bruxism in their case.