Bruxism is the medical term for the habit of grinding and/or clenching your teeth. Some people just clench their jaws together, some grind their molars back and forth and many do both at the same time. These motions put pressure on the teeth as well as the muscles and connective tissues in the jaw. It’s not unusual to grind or clench your teeth under stressful circumstances. However, if the habit is persistent, it can cause chronic jaw pain and permanent damage to your teeth. Often, patients display bruxism at night during sleep. It’s possible to be completely unaware that you are doing this until your bed partner tells you about it (the grinding can be very loud and grating).

What Causes Bruxism?

This condition may develop because of a number of contributing factors. The most common are thought to be poor bite alignment (the upper and lower teeth don’t match up correctly) and high levels of stress. The stress leading to tooth grinding may be associated with worry, anxiety, unexpressed anger or frustration, hyper-competitiveness or perfectionism. Anything that interferes with your ability to relax can be a problem if you are prone to jaw clenching. This can include using substances such as nicotine, caffeine or alcohol.

Less common risk factors may include:

  • Sleep disorders such as apnea
  • Diseases that interfere with motor control (such as Parkinson’s)
  • Ear or mouth pain (young children are prone to temporary bruxism in response to earaches and teething)

How Can You Tell if You Have Bruxism?

Your dentist will check for signs of tooth grinding during your regular oral checkup. Visible signs of this disorder may include teeth that are abnormally worn, chipped or otherwise damaged. There may also be signs of abrasion or dents on the inside of your cheek or on your tongue if you are accidentally biting yourself at night. If you tend to clench your jaw, it may make a popping sound on one or both sides due to chronic inflammation (TMJ). Your dentist will also ask you about symptoms like tooth sensitivity, facial pain or jaw tension that could be additional indicators of bruxism. You may be referred to a sleep specialist to have your nighttime jaw clenching habits monitored by video for a confirmed diagnosis.

Why Is Bruxism a Problem?

If you only grind your teeth occasionally, this condition is not likely to cause any significant damage. However, chronic grinding can wear down teeth to the point where they need prosthetic restoration such as crowns. You may also destroy existing restorations so that they must be replaced. You could even fracture a tooth, leading to an increased risk of abscess (requiring root canal or extraction of the tooth). Both grinding and clenching can cause headaches, jaw and facial pain, earaches and other forms of recurring or chronic discomfort. These issues may affect your mood and your ability to sleep soundly.

Can Bruxism Be Treated?

In many cases, tooth grinding and jaw clenching can be lessened, if not completely eliminated. The recommended treatment will depend on the underlying cause and the extent of your condition. Your dentist may fit you with a splint or night guard as the first step in reducing tooth grinding. This is a plastic tray that fits over the upper teeth, lower teeth, or both. It may help relax the jaw and prevent the top and bottom teeth from making contact with each other. Bite or tooth misalignment might be treated with braces or dental restoration after the grinding is under better control.

Stress-related bruxism may be addressed with behavioral and lifestyle changes to help you learn to relax throughout the day and at bedtime. Your dentist may advise many different strategies such as cutting back on caffeine, placing a warm compress on your jaw, or retraining yourself to hold your teeth slightly apart. Since bruxism is a habit, it can take a while to break it and form new habits. If your jaw is sore from years of tooth clenching, it may take some time for your symptoms to subside.