Benefiting You

Teeth grinding: what causes it, why it’s bad and what your dentist can do to help

Teeth grinding — also known as bruxism — is more common than you might think, experts say. And while a sore jaw or teeth might be a clue you’re grinding your teeth, many people are surprised when they’re told about it, says Jona Trottier, an oral health specialist.

The problem is, by the time a dentist tells you you’re grinding your teeth, the damage may have already been done. “Bruxing takes an enormous toll on teeth,” Trottier said.

Here’s what you need to know about bruxism and how to deal with it.

What causes teeth grinding
It can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what’s causing your bruxism, but there are several common culprits, Trottier says. Stress and anxiety can be a major factor: There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that college students have a higher incidence of grinding their teeth during finals, she said. Some medications, as well as alcohol and caffeine use, can also play a part. And having a bad bite or sleep apnea can also prompt grinding.

People who are told they grind their teeth at night usually deny it, simply because they’re asleep when it happens. Here are some symptoms that may indicate you’re grinding your teeth at night:

• Pain or tightness in the jaw
• Muscle fatigue
• Difficulty opening your mouth or TMJ (temporomandibular joint) inflammation
• Headaches in the morning
• Teeth sensitivity, or pain or discomfort when chewing
• Noticeable wear or chipping of the teeth

Why teeth grinding is bad
Grinding your teeth shifts and fractures them, and wears away the enamel, Trottier says. It also can make your gums recede. At the junction where the tooth enamel ends and the root starts, the tooth is made of cementum, which isn’t as hard as enamel.

“The grinding puts pressure on the tooth, rocking it. And because the tooth is of crystalline structure, it causes weakness, almost flaking off,” she says. This makes the tooth more vulnerable to other issues.

Cracks in your teeth can lead to a root canal or crown, or even tooth removal. Grinding also can compromise any implants you have already.

“I know a prosthodontist who requires each of his patients with implants or major restorative cases to have an occlusal night guard (a removable acrylic appliance intended to relieve temporomandibular joint pain and other effects of grinding the teeth) made,” Trotter says.

What your dentist can do to help
Find a dentist with experience working with bruxism to get the best treatment. Night guards can help protect your teeth and jaw from grinding, and are becoming much more popular, Trottier says.

Custom night guards made by a dentist aren’t always covered by insurance, but over-the-counter options are available. They’ve become more comfortable to use and may save you money, too.

In the meantime, stress-reduction techniques, breathing machines to help with sleep apnea and reducing your use of alcohol and caffeine may help reduce the triggers that make you grind your teeth at night.

This post is based on content that first appeared in SmileInSight.