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Grinding your teeth, also called bruxism, is a common issue that doesn’t necessarily lead to complications. It is estimated that 8% of adults grind their teeth at night, and more than a third of parents have reported that their children have engaged in sleep bruxism. Occasional bruxism doesn’t normally lead to problems, but when grinding becomes a regular occurrence, it can lead to a host of problems. If you have teeth that are worn flat or a clicking jaw, you might be grinding your teeth at night and not know it.

Why Does Tooth Grinding Happen?

Dentists and medical professionals have been trying to solve the mystery of why we grind our teeth at night for years. It is well known that bruxism can accompany abnormal tooth alignment or sleep disorders like sleep apnea, but the mechanics haven’t historically been fully explored. There is some evidence that, particularly in cases of apnea, grinding your teeth is a natural response to open a blocked airway by tensing muscles in the tongue and jaw.

Studies have also shown that nocturnal tooth grinding is linked with other factors like stress, consumption of alcohol, cigarettes, or caffeine, or the use of certain medications. Bruxism is not linked in most cases with psychiatric or psychological conditions.

How Serious Is It?

While most people who grind their teeth at night only do so occasionally, that doesn’t mean that this instinctive behavior is without risk. Regular tooth grinding can damage not only your teeth, but your jaw joint (leading to TMJ pain) and the muscles in your face including those in your ears, as well as causing headaches. It can also cause your fillings to become damaged or dislodged, setting you up for cavities in teeth you’ve already had work on.

Since bruxism usually happens during deep sleep, it also has the added complication of keeping you from sleeping restfully. You have to come out of deep sleep to engage muscles. Over time, lack of proper sleep can lead to a host of other health issues. If you’re grinding your teeth, it could be affecting more than just your teeth and jaws.

What Can Be Done?

While many dentists recommend the use of a mouth guard (to keep the teeth from grinding against one another), it isn’t guaranteed to help. Some people have difficulties keeping their mouth guard in place during sleep, and for those with sleep apnea or difficulties breathing, a mouth guard can block their airway, leading to more episodes of bruxism. It is important to talk with your dentist or doctor to determine if a mouth guard will alleviate your symptoms or if you’ll need to examine other treatment options.

If you have sleep apnea, other options might need to be explored with your physician. You may not know if you have sleep apnea, as many cases of sleep apnea remain undiagnosed, particularly if the apnea is slight. If your doctor is concerned about sleep apnea as a potential cause of your tooth grinding, you will need to participate in a sleep study. There are also appliances your dentist can offer that help keep your airway open while you sleep, and these can be used by themselves or in conjunction with a CPAP machine.

If you find you have symptoms of bruxism, including jaw pain or clicking, ringing in your ears, headaches, sore facial muscles, or tooth pain, you should talk to your dentist to determine what treatment options might be right for you. Your quality of life might improve more than you think.

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