When it was first recommended that I get one late last spring, I balked. It seemed deeply uncool, like it would make it harder to breathe and definitely get in the way of my ability to speak clearly, even if I didn’t have to wear it all the time. But now that I’m using it regularly, I can’t imagine getting through 2020 without it.
I’m not talking about my face mask – though that’s another part of my daily routine 2019 me would have never envisioned – I’m talking about my nightguard, a two-millimeter-thin scrap of plastic I wear when I sleep that is quite literally absorbing the brunt of my myriad stresses. And for a surging number of Canadians whose jaws have been working overtime, the protective dental device has become the, um, sleeper trend of year.
“They are the hottest accessory of the pandemic,” says Mattie Kahn, culture director at Glamour Magazine and a soon-to-be nightguard adopter (when I interviewed her, she’d been fitted by her dentist and was waiting to pick up her device).
Even for those of us who haven’t been staying up all night doomscrolling, the stresses of 2020 are manifesting in new nocturnal behaviours, specifically a rise in jaw clenching and teeth grinding, or as the condition is medically known, bruxism. “Definitely it’s being talked about in dental circles,” Ottawa dentist Dr. Micaela Fitzgerald says. “When we opened up again [after lockdown] it was probably our No. 1 reported concern from patients.”
While there are no Canada-specific stats, a recent survey by the American Dental Association found that nearly 60 per cent of practices have seen an increase in bruxism since the start of the pandemic. More than five in 10 dentists reported increases in chipped and cracked teeth, as well as jaw pain and stiffness and other disorders related to the temporomandibular joint (TMJ, as you may know it) – all common consequences of leaving those night moves unchecked. Which is how getting gagged with a dental mould became yet another quintessential part of the 2020 experience.
Fitzgerald estimates that 90 per cent of the people who come into her office with symptoms leave having taken a fresh mould, and reports that her practice has gone from making two or three nightguards a week to two or three each day (she’s had to reassign other tasks from the lab technician who makes them, essentially making keeping up with the demand a full-time job). Other treatments, including physio and Botox, may help, but Fitzgerald says custom and over-the-counter nightguards are the most practical and effective option.
It’s not entirely clear why humans tend to carry so much stress in their jaws, but scientists say the human masseter muscle, the strongest in our bodies based on its weight, can exert up to 90.7 kilograms, basically the heaviest lifting I’ve done since I stopped going to the gym in March. But many people aren’t aware their mouths or working overtime until they have a problem – in my case, the pain was so bad I thought I needed a root canal (small mercy: I didn’t) – and researchers say grinders and clenchers may not even be aware they’re stressed.
“I’ve noticed that I tend to feel mentally fine, but then my body shows physical signs of stress or anxiety,” says Brandon Yan, executive director of the Vancouver non-profit Out on Screen, who took to Twitter for recommendations for what to do about jaw pain in late spring. “I got everything from try weed or CBD oil or whatnot and then got suggestions to try a nightguard. That was an easy conversation to have with my dentist and get one started.”
In Kahn’s case, like mine, it was a severe toothache that revealed the problem. “The dentist is the last doctor you want to see in the middle of a pandemic when breathing without a mask is dangerous,” she says. “My dentist barely even looked at my teeth and was like, ‘You need a nightguard. You along with every other person I’ve treated for the last few months.’ … When he gave me the date to come back to pick it up I jokingly groaned because it was so close to the election. He said, 'Just be glad I’m not making you wait until Nov. 4.”
A dual U.S.-Canadian citizen, Kahn says her reasons for grinding have been steadily ramping up month after month all year long. “A cataloging of stressors: the election is one; I unfortunately was sad not to have my nightguard for when the senate confirmed Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court; and the pandemic obviously still looming large. And daylight saving time is ending so the days are shorter and that’s just another cherry on top of a season of much despair.”
U.S. politics are wearing on the mouths of Canadians, too. “As someone who’s very politically aware and also working in a non-profit that operates in a social justice ecosystem, I think world conflict and local conflict in social justice and equity and diversity and inclusion play a big part, especially if you feel like powerless to do anything about it,” Yan says.
The good news is nightguards – until recently so embarrassing that Schitt’s Creek devoted a sixth season plotline to Patrick hiding his from David – really do help. “Popular culture does a really good job at stigmatizing things like nightguards. Growing up you always saw depictions of mouth guards worn by nerds in school,” Yan says. But he says his does the trick. “The only annoying part is that it does tend to keep my mouth open so I have a slightly dry mouth when I wake up. It’s also not the most inviting when you put one in your mouth and then go to bed and try to kiss your partner good night.”
As for me, I’ve developed a weird affection for my nightguard. Where it first evoked disgusting memories of my junior-high retainer, I now admire it for its sleekness and the fact that within just a couple nights of use, it started to ease the headaches and sore neck that have been my constant companions this year. When I take it out of my mouth each morning, I inspect it, dare I say, lovingly. Just a couple of weeks in, it already has some grooves and scratches, proof my nightguard is needed, but also marks that make me worry how much pressure it can take. The grind of 2020 is wearing on all of us.