What You Need to Know About Bruxism and Teeth Grinding

Here's what you need to know about bruxism and what you can do to stop grinding your teeth.

You had a stressful day and you unleashed your tension by grinding your teeth at night, maybe grinding so forcefully that you woke up your partner. And perhaps you paid the price the next day with a headache. Head and facial pain caused by teeth grinding (also called bruxism) is serious and common. While many think of it as a problem that only affects older people, New York City-based dentist Leslie B. Goldfarb, DDS, says people of all ages can develop this habit. “Even children can grind their teeth,” she says.

When you grind, you may be putting as much as 1,200 pounds of pressure on the crowns and roots. That recurring pressure is what can break or loosen your teeth. You can get temporary relief from over-the-counter pain relievers like aspirin or acetaminophen. But that doesn’t get to the root of the problem, especially when you start to get jaw pain. For that, you’ll want to consult with your dentist and make sure you take really good care of your teeth. In the meantime, here are some ways to minimize the daily (or nightly) grind.

Tooth-acheAndrey Popov/Shutterstock

Steer clear of stress at the end of the day

Avoid stressful thoughts, activities, and movies in the hours before bedtime. You probably don’t realize it, but just before bed is the worst time to pay the bills, watch Netflix, or talk about your in-laws. If you are bothered by worries, jot down things that you need to address the next day. Then take a long, warm bath before you go to bed. While you’re there, cover your jaw with a washcloth that’s been soaked in hot water. The extra warmth will relax your jaw muscles.

Practice progressive muscle relaxation before you go to sleep, so tension doesn’t lead you to teeth grinding at night. Here’s how it works: When you’re lying in bed, first make a conscious decision to contract, then relax the muscles in your feet. Repeat with your calf muscles, then thigh muscles, and so on, progressively contracting and relaxing each set of muscles all the way up your body. By the time you contract and relax your neck and jaw muscles, you should feel as limp as a rag doll. Also try to avoid eating within an hour of bedtime. Digesting food while you sleep makes you more likely to grind your teeth.

Be guarded

A protective mouthguard made for boxers and defensive linebackers may work for bruxism too. These devices fall into one of three categories: stock mouth guards (which you can find at the local drugstore), the mouth-formed or “boil and bite” type (which are heated in hot water, placed in the mouth and molded to the teeth), and custom-made mouthguards (which give the most protection), according to the American Dental Association’s Council on Advocacy for Access and Prevention. If you buy your own, follow directions on how to mold it to your bite, then wear it to bed at night. The rubbery material will absorb pressure and save your teeth from damage. If you find that the mouth guard keeps falling out, or you wear it right through, talk to your dentist about a customized mouth guard. Try these other surprising DIY ways to stop teeth grinding or bruxism.

Give your jaw a break

During the day, make a conscious point of keeping your jaw relaxed and your teeth apart. As a reminder to yourself, rest your tongue between your top and lower teeth, so if you start to bite down, you’ll really know it. Experts say most people aren’t even aware that they grind their teeth, but those who can break the daytime teeth-grinding habit are less likely to do it unconsciously at night, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

Avoid excessively hard or chewy foods; not only gum and hard candy, but also steak or dried foods that require a lot of jaw action. And if you’re in the habit of chewing on the end of your pencil, try to stop. When you work your jaws during the day, the pattern is likely to continue in your sleep.

Watch what you drink

Keep alcohol consumption to a minimum, or, better yet, stop drinking altogether. This is especially important in the evening. Though sleep experts aren’t sure why, people who drink heavily at night are more likely to grind their teeth when they sleep. Also, avoid caffeinated drinks. Since caffeine is a stimulant, if you drink coffee, black tea, or caffeinated soft drinks, you’re far more likely to grind away.

Get proper nutrition

Did you know that many of the same vitamins and minerals that keep bones strong can also help your teeth? Studies on the elderly given calcium and vitamin D supplements suggest that the nutrients may have helped them to keep their teeth. Specifically, vitamin D might reduce the risk of gingivitis and periodontitis, according to a 2020 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

dentist checking patient's teethLuis Alvarez/Getty Images

Get jaw pain checked out

You may respond to stressful situations during the day by clenching or grinding your teeth at night, without even realizing you’re doing it. This presents a problem, since your teeth are designed to touch briefly when you’re chewing and swallowing—they aren’t built for the punishment of constant grinding. Common triggers are tension and anger. Nighttime grinding can lead to cracked teeth and headaches, as well as the neck and jaw pain called temporomandibular (TMJ) disorders. These 33 tips can make managing stress easier, and give your jaw a break too.

Get regular checkups

Experts recommend that all adults should have biannual dental cleaning by a hygienist, and a biannual oral health assessment by a dentist. “Your mouth is a mirror to your body,” notes Sree Raghavendra, DMD, assistant professor in the Department of Craniofacial Sciences at the UConn School of Dental Medicine in Farmington. Frequent touch points with a dentist will also alert you to grinding activity or bruxism you might not have been aware of, and, hopefully, prevent future damage.

When to call a healthcare professional for bruxism

If you wake up with pain in your jaw, neck, or shoulder, or have morning headaches, tell your dentist or doctor about your symptoms so you can at least try to prevent a dental emergency. This is particularly important if your bedmate reports that you grind your teeth at night. And you need to see an expert immediately if you have a broken tooth from the grinding. For severe bruxism or teeth grinding, you can be fitted with an appliance called the NTI-tss (nociceptive trigeminal inhibition-tension suppression system). It protects you from the damaging and often migraine-producing clenching on back molars. While no one loves going to the dentist, he or she has lots of ways to keep your teeth and gums healthy and your jaw and neck pain-free.

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