Bruxism bites: I'm grinding my teeth in my sleep

Dear Alice,

My mom tells me that when I'm sleeping, I grind my teeth... is this serious? Is it caused by stress? How can I stop this from happening?

Dear Reader, 

Looking to avoid the grind? Almost everyone grinds or clenches their teeth at one time or another. However, some people may find that they’re doing this regularly, which is a condition known as bruxism. There are two forms of bruxism: awake and sleep bruxism. Awake bruxism is the most common form and occurs when someone is awake. Sleep bruxism, on the other hand, occurs while an individual is asleep and can pose more serious problems. The jaw-force applied is likely to be much more than the forced applied during an episode of awake bruxism. Stress is one of several factors that can increase the risk of bruxism. The good news is that there are a number of ways to help curb and alleviate the pain from your bruxism (more on this later). 

Jaw grinding isn't the only symptom of bruxism. There are several symptoms and signs that may indicate you’re dealing with bruxism, including: 

  • Dull headaches 
  • Loud teeth grinding or clenching 
  • Pain that feels like an earache 
  • Stiff or painful jaw joints 
  • Teeth that are worn down, flattened on the tips or fractured 
  • Chipped teeth 
  • Increasingly sensitive teeth 
  • Worn tooth enamel 

While some people will experience symptoms and show signs of bruxism, others may not experience any of these symptoms. In fact, some might not even notice that they do it and only find out when others hear the grinding, which sounds like it might be the case for you. As mentioned earlier, stress can be a factor that contributes to bruxism; however, it’s not the only factor. In addition to stress, bruxism can be caused by certain factors such as: 

  • Age: It’s common for young children to experience bruxism; in many cases, children who grind their teeth grow out of the behavior and many adults don’t suffer from severe cases of bruxism. 
  • Personality type: Having a hyperactive or competitive personality can increase your likelihood of suffering from bruxism. 
  • Genetics: Research has indicated that there may be a genetic component when it comes to sleep bruxism, as it seems if one family member is suffering from bruxism, another family member may be as well. 
  • Medications and other substances: Sometimes, bruxism can be a side effect of certain medications, such as antidepressants. Additionally, it can also develop as a result of smoking tobacco, using illicit recreational drugs, and drinking alcohol or caffeinated beverages. 
  • Other disorders: Some mental health and medical disorders, such as dementia, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and Parkinson’s disease, have been associated with an increased risk for bruxism. 

Both lists adapted from Mayo Clinic

Though bruxism isn’t typically considered a serious condition, it can result in damage to your teeth, headaches, and jaw or ear pain. Furthermore, there is no treatment that can completely cure bruxism. However, there are several self-help activities that you can try out to help alleviate the pain. Some of the strategies you can use to reduce pain from grinding your teeth may include: 

  • Reducing your exposure to stress through either relaxation techniques or partaking in activities that help relieve stress. 
  • Practicing good sleep habits and addressing any sleep problems you may have. 
  • Avoiding eating hard foods or chewing gum. 
  • Trying to avoid drinking caffeinated drinks or alcohol in the evening. 
  • Using hot or cold compresses on jaw muscles. 
  • Using physical therapy stretches for facial muscles and joints. 
  • Getting a massage around the head, neck, face area. 

In addition to self-help strategies, you can also talk with a dentist or health care provider to find the best treatment for you. They may recommend using mouth guards or splints that cover the teeth, which can prevent tooth damage and alleviate some pain. In some cases, they may recommend orthodontic treatment that adjusts or corrects your bite alignment (how your upper and lower teeth line up in your mouth). Furthermore, they may prescribe you medication to help reduce the pain associated with bruxism, such as muscle relaxants, antidepressants, or botulinum toxin injections. However, there is still a need for more research around the effectiveness of using medication to treat bruxism, so this may be used as a last resort by your provider. 

If you suspect your nighttime gnawing is causing any of the described symptoms, an examination with health care provider or dentist may help. They could rule out any other medical issues, help you explore treatment options, and allow you and your mom to sleep peacefully again! 

Here’s to getting off the grind! 

Last updated Jun 18, 2021
Originally published Aug 08, 2003

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