Teeth Grinding

Five Reasons We Grind Our Teeth at Night

grind my teeth

“Listen Doctor! I think I would know if I was grinding my teeth at night!”

Teeth grinding is a problem that affects millions of Americans every single night.  The medical term for this subconscious habit is bruxism, which encompasses both clenching and grinding motions.  This habit can cause severe damage to your oral health.

Why do we do it?

There is not one single cause of teeth grinding.  Instead, there are a variety of risk factors that predispose someone to clenching or grinding, and many people have more than one of these risk factors.  We’ll cover the most common ones in this article.

Why is Teeth Grinding a Problem?

Teeth grinding can lead to irreversible damage to the teeth, gums, and jaw joints.  The heavy forces of clenching and grinding put the teeth at risk for attrition (a gradual shortening and flattening of the teeth), abfraction (notching at the gum lines) and cracked teeth.  These types of damage require expensive dental treatments to repair.

Some people suffer from irreversible gum tissue loss (gum recession) as a result of heavy grinding, and this may require extensive periodontal surgery to replace.

Many people also suffer from painful symptoms, like chronic headaches and facial pain.  Persistent clenching and/or grinding may lead to damage in the temporomandibular Joints (TMJs).  People suffering from TMJ dysfunction often have pain and/or a limitation in their chewing function and can bite the tongue or cheek.

Needless to say, teeth grinding is not a condition to ignore!

What amuses a Habit of Teeth Grinding during Sleep?

Most people who clench or grind their teeth on a regular basis will have one or more of the following causes.

  • Occlusal Problems

Occlusion is a term describing the way the upper and lower jaws bit together, specifically the way the teeth on the upper and lower arches bite together.  Put simply, occlusal problems can also be called bite problems.  Each tooth has a specific shape designed to meet the tooth opposing it in the bite in a way that promotes good chewing of food particles.

When the upper and lower teeth do not fit together properly, your muscles may continually strive to make them fit and cause subconscious grinding motions.  This can result from problems with the shape of particular teeth that prevents them from biting together normally.  

It can also be the result of bad positioning of the teeth.  When they are out of alignment, they may not fit together well.  

  • Joint Problems

The efforts to make the teeth fit together properly may stem from a problem at the level of the jaw joints.  The TemporoMandibular Joints are the most complex joints in the human body.  They are ball-in-socket joints (like hips and shoulders), but the difference is that the “ball” comes out of the “socket” in normal function.  

When there is dysfunction or instability in one or both of the joints, it affects the way the teeth bite together.  

It is important to understand that clenching or grinding of the teeth by itself does not constitute “TMJ”, as many people call it.  The correct technical term is TMD, which stands for TemporoMandibular Disorder or Dysfunction.  TMD can involve teeth grinding, but teeth grinding does not always indicate a problem at the joint level.  Many people grind their teeth with perfectly healthy joints.

  • Airway Problems

Another common cause of teeth grinding is a problem with the upper airway.  When there is a restriction or obstruction of the airway at the back of the throat that interrupts breathing, your brain detects a drop in oxygen levels.  The response to a drop in oxygen is to attempt to open the airway.  One way your body tries to do this is by clamping the lower jaw tightly shut and/or pushing the lower jaw forward.  

Those of you who have undergone CPR training may remember that one technique of opening the airway is through performing a “jaw thrust”.  Pulling the lower jaw forward tightens the tissues in the throat and opens the airway for better breathing.

There is a high correlation between patients who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and teeth grinding.  The grinding is your body’s natural reflex to a need for opening the airway.

  • Muscular Problems

For some, the subconscious habit of teeth clenching and/or grinding stems from problems with facial muscles that are overly tense.  Just as some people have constant muscle tightness in the neck and shoulders, others can have excess muscle tension in the muscles that close the jaws.  

As with the neck and shoulders, sometimes these tight muscles are the result of postural problems.  A misalignment in the upper cervical vertebrae (upper neck region) can also increase muscle tension in the jaws.  Posture and alignment have an impact on the entire head and neck complex, including the facial muscles.

Some patients with excessive muscle tension can suffer from muscle cramping and knots in their large facial muscles, causing severe discomfort.  

While no one understands the exact mechanism of stress causing teeth grinding, those who have experienced it can attest that it is a true cause.  Stress can lead to an increase in muscle tension in many areas of the body.  An increase in stress and anxiety causes many people to grind their teeth.

  • Prescription Medication

Another potential cause of teeth grinding is that it is a side effect of certain prescription medications.  Prescriptions for antidepressants, such as Prozac, Zoloft and Effexor, have been linked to the side effect of bruxism.  Studies also showed the potential for teeth clenching and grinding when taking some antipsychotic medications.

These medications can be important in someone’s overall quality of life and healthy functioning.  If they have bruxism (teeth clenching and/or grinding) as a potential side effect, it will be listed in the prescription information.  Pay attention to your medications and be aware of any potential side effects.

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What Can I Do About Teeth Grinding?

Teeth grinding is difficult to prevent since the causes are often multi-factorial.  You may be able to correct bite problems or issues with muscle hyperactivity.  Joint problems and airway problems are more difficult to address.  Some people are never able to get their stress to a manageable level.

If you are taking a prescription medication that causes teeth grinding, you can speak to the prescribing doctor about the possibility of altering your dosage.

The best approach to teeth grinding is protecting yourself against the potential damage it can cause.  You can do this by wearing a mouthguard that covers your teeth, separating them from the opposing teeth and reducing the amount of force that you can create between your upper and lower jaws.  It is important to see your dentist and discuss your options with him or her to get the best protection.  Some people find great success in lab-made mouthguards, like those made by Sentinel Mouthguards.

Wearing a mouthguard during sleep provides multiple benefits to those suffering from teeth grinding.  Many people experience relief from headaches and facial pain.  Any coverage over the teeth will protect them from the dangers of attrition, abfraction and tooth fractures.  The reduction in muscle forces can also help to decompress the jaw joints.

What is the Most Important Thing to Know about Teeth Grinding?

Teeth grinding can cause serious, irreversible damage to your teeth and jaws.  You can protect yourself against this damage by wearing a custom-made mouthguard.  See your dentist if your symptoms do not improve after wearing a mouthguard.

2 responses to “Five Reasons We Grind Our Teeth at Night

  1. Hi, I want to add what I consider another very important cause of grinding, one which falls under the umbrella of muscular issues: hypothyroidism, including sub-clinical. Hypothyroidism causes muscle tension and can be relieved relieved by prescription hormones and supplemental magnesium. (Somewhat useful article here: http://www.webmedcentral.com/article_view/5371). These guards (I have 2 versions) have been lifesavers!

Five Reasons We Grind Our Teeth at Night
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Dr. Lara Coseo

Dr. Lara Coseo, (DDS, FAGD) is a 2004 graduate of Baylor College of Dentistry in Dallas, Texas.Having practiced general dentistry for 13 years, Dr. Lara currently serves as an Associate Professor at Texas A&M College of Dentistry.

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author_Dr. Lara Coseo, DDS
Dr. Lara Coseo, (DDS, FAGD)

Baylor College of Dentistry in Dallas, Texas

Dr. Lara Coseo, (DDS, FAGD) is a 2004 graduate of Baylor College of Dentistry in Dallas, Texas. Having practiced general dentistry for 13 years, Dr. Lara currently serves as an Associate Professor at Texas A&M College of Dentistry.