Grinding teeth and muscle tension: As COVID-19 stress mounts, watch for physical signs

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, health-care workers say people may see an increase in the physical symptoms of stress.

Jaw pain, headaches, tense muscles are all signs of stress, health-care workers say

Physiotherapists, massage therapists and dentists in the province say stress can lead to a number of physical symptoms. That poses a problem because so many aren't able to treat patients. (Dragana Gordic/Shutterstock)

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, health-care workers say people may notice an increase in the physical symptoms of stress.

"Extreme and prolonged stress can have a lot of different effects on the body," said Tricia Weidenbacher, executive director of the Massage Therapy Association of Manitoba. 

The pandemic is "weighing on people's minds and now it's finally hitting home in terms of how severe the situation is."

Symptoms like tension headaches and tight muscles are all common during these periods of stress, but the current outbreak is particularly challenging for massage therapists who want to be able to help their patients, Weidenbacher said.

"We can't be two metres away from our patients," she said. "It's very hands-on."

The same is true in other fields.

"The last few weeks have been very challenging for physiotherapists," said Sheila Williams, president of the Manitoba Physiotherapy Association and owner of Markham Physiotherapy Clinic in Winnipeg.

"Many clinics have decided to close. It's very difficult for private clinics to practise social distancing measures when we're normally in such very close contact with our patients."

Many massage therapists in Manitoba aren't practising right now because of the pandemic. Tricia Weidenbacher of the Massage Therapy Association of Manitoba says stress can lead to muscle tension and headaches. (Prostock-studio/Shutterstock)

She's concerned the ongoing stress will create a cycle of pain for her patients that could derail their recovery process.

"Stress can often lead to increases in pain levels. Pain levels can also increase stress," Williams said. 

"It's a bit of a difficult situation for many, because they're already in pain or recovering from an injury and then there's added stress upon the body."

The uncertainty the pandemic evokes could even hurt your teeth.

Dr. Murad Zaman, a dentist at Cityplace Dental in Winnipeg, said ongoing stress can exacerbate habits like nail-biting and chewing on things, but can also lead to grinding your teeth.

"Patients in stressful situations will present with teeth wear," he said, "but pain in the jaw, joints or the musculature of the face from clenching is also a pretty common sign you're stressed out."

It's difficult to do a great deal of damage to teeth if the response to stress is short-lived — but in the long run, grinding could loosen fillings and even crack or chip teeth, Zaman said.

Although many clinics and offices are closed, or only treating people experiencing emergencies, health-care workers say there are things people can do at home to prevent deteriorating physical health.

Address physical symptoms

"Exercise is medicine," Williams said, especially for those who are working from home or sitting most of the day.

"If you're working at home, take a break every 20 or 30 minutes to get up, stand, stretch, maybe change position. Get outdoors if you possibly can — try to get some activity if the one that you normally do isn't available right now."

Zaman echoed that, but from a dental perspective.

In addition to regular brushing and flossing and following the directives of your dentist, things like exercise and meditation are key to protecting your teeth, he said.

They can help take people's minds off the current situation and help avoid habits that are hard on teeth, including nail-biting, chewing on pens and grinding teeth, he said.

Patients should contact their dentist's office to ask questions or talk through issues, he said.

"We are here for them, even if we can't see them in person."

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Rachel Bergen is a journalist for CBC Manitoba and previously reported for CBC Saskatoon. Email story ideas to