Q: I’m 34 and a healthy mom of three kids. Recently I developed severe pain along my jaw and the side of my face. What could be causing it and what kind of doctor should I see about it?
— Sonia G., Miami, Fla.
A: It sounds like you’re clenching your jaws and grinding your teeth. That can exert 300 or more pounds of pressure on your teeth, causing extremely sore muscles, broken teeth/fillings/crowns, eroded tooth enamel, and migraine headaches. You can even have trouble opening your mouth.
Dentists report seeing a lot of distress and damage like this as a result of the tension associated with the pandemic. A 2020 Israeli study published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine found that since the start of the pandemic, the prevalence of symptoms of jaw clenching and teeth grinding had skyrocketed, especially among young working mothers with kids at home: Daytime jaw-clenching rose from about 17% to 32% in people surveyed and nighttime teeth-grinding went up from 10% to 36%.
Fortunately, your dentist can ease your discomfort and protect your teeth. There are specific jaw-relaxing exercises and massage techniques you can learn, and you can get an individually-fitted mouthguard that’s worn at night. (True, you can buy an over-the-counter mouth guard — but you should get a fitted one when you can.)
To ease the pain, you also need to look at your body posture. Folks who spend hours at a computer tend to push their head forward, creating tension between upper and lower teeth and in the neck muscles, says Leopoldo Correa, associate professor at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine and director of the school’s Craniofacial Pain Center. If that’s you, get a high-backed chair or one with a head rest. Position your keyboard and screen so you don’t have to strain forward to use them. Take frequent breaks and stretch.
If you act now, you can stop the immediate pain and avoid serious dental problems down the road.
Q: I’ve been having trouble sleeping. Will taking melatonin supplements help?
— Lola K., Richmond, Va.
A: Trouble falling or staying asleep is incredibly common and can result from stress, lack of exercise, certain medications (SSRIs, beta agonists, decongestants, steroids and more), and poor sleeping conditions, such as too much light or noise, blue light from digital devices in the bedroom, a poor mattress, a too-hot room, sleep apnea or a snoring companion — but that’s another story.
It’s important to tackle sleep problems by identifying their root cause and addressing them. If you cannot figure them out yourself, talk to your doctor about your medications’ side effects or get a referral to a sleep specialist. Disruption of the cycle is associated with all kinds of health problems, from depression to diabetes and heart disease.
As for melatonin — it’s a hormone produced by your brain’s pineal gland in response to darkness. It helps regulate your 24-hour sleep-wake cycle (aka circadian rhythms). It probably has other important functions, such as improving immune function, helping maintain bone strength and mediating menopausal symptoms, but research is still ongoing. We do know that being exposed to light can block the production of melatonin — so your first step is to make sure you’re sleeping in a dark room. Nightlights and digital clock dials should be red wavelength light only.
Anecdotally, many people swear by melatonin supplements — but the placebo effect works 30% or more of the time, so that could be a factor. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health says that there’s not enough strong evidence on the effectiveness or safety of melatonin supplementation for chronic insomnia to recommend its use. However, melatonin may help for short-term problems like jet lag or anxiety before or after surgery. And the American College of Physicians guidelines strongly recommend cognitive behavioral therapy as the first-line treatment for chronic insomnia. You can find a therapist at www.behavioralsleep.org under the “providers” tab.