Have you ever wondered if you grind your teeth at night? If you did, how would you know? Has one of your loved ones told you that they’ve heard you grinding your teeth?
If so, you’re not alone: teeth grinding, aka bruxism, is a fairly common phenomenon across the US. Depending on the individual, it can be related to more or less serious health concerns, but no matter which category you fall into it’s disconcerting to realize that this is all happening to you while you’re at rest and without your knowledge. Don’t worry though, there are things you can do! We want to go over the causes behind bruxism with you today, as well as ways you can help prevent it in your life.
What’s behind bruxism?
Up to now, the theory has been that tooth grinding is closely associated with stress or anxiety. This may be the case for some, but what about others? For example, babies have been observed grinding their teeth –or gums– in utero, which raised questions in the scientific community. Since this discovery, another possible cause behind bruxism emerged: is it possible that grinding is a survival response?
Recent research suggests that it is. The grinding that researchers observed during their experiments appeared to be the body’s natural survival response to bypass symptoms of sleep apnea.
Though many may not know it, our bodies require all of our muscles to be relaxed for the brain to achieve deep sleep. When relaxed, the tongue takes up almost double the amount of space, which can obstruct the airway and respiration. This results in more trouble for some people than others.
Researchers observed sleeping individuals with blocked airways suddenly start grinding their teeth, which – interestingly enough – reopened their airways and allowed them to breathe normally again. Among other potential tested solutions was a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine, which served to restore full airway functionality and allowed sleeping participants to stop grinding their teeth and breathe properly.
So is grinding good or bad?
In the sense that bruxism is a response that saves your life if you stop breathing, bruxism is good. But in the sense of dental longevity, it’s bad. Bruxism can lead to damage of your teeth and jaw, and can bring about tooth sensitivity and chronic jaw pain. Headaches and periodontal tissue damage can also be related to bruxism.
Aside from oral health, tooth grinding disrupts normal sleep patterns. Did you know that all the great benefits of a full night’s rest only exist for you if you’ve made it to the deep sleep stage? So if you’re grinding your teeth regularly at night, you may not receive sleep-related benefits like improved memory, fat burn, muscle build, and tighter skin.
Teeth grinding can also serve as a red flag for sleep apnea, a serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts. Untreated sleep apnea can increase your risk of high blood pressure, stroke, cancer, diabetes, depression, and obesity.
What can I do if I grind my teeth while sleeping?
Talk to us if you suspect you’re grinding your teeth at night. Some of the symptoms to look for include: wear on your teeth, flattened tooth surfaces, abfraction (which is a loss of tooth structure along the gum line that is not related to tooth decay), sore jaw muscles or TMJ pain, or a jaw that clicks.
While we don’t make a diagnosis about your quality of sleep, we can help you figure out if you are grinding your teeth by examining your mouth for these signs. Your medical doctor might then encourage you to get a sleep study to figure out whether your bruxism is related to sleep apnea or not.
If you suspect your grinding is stress-related, there are a number of things you can do to decrease your chances of tooth grinding at night. Starting an exercise regimen or attending stress counseling might help, but here are a few easily implemented tips to help you reduce your chance of bruxism:
- Limit caffeine and alcohol before bed.
- Try not to chew on objects that aren’t food – chewing gum included. Chewing on items like pens, pencils, and chewing gum stimulates tension in your jaw.
- Try to recognize when you are tensing or clenching your jaw throughout the day. When you notice, place the tip of your tongue between your teeth; this encourages your jaw muscles to relax.
- Grab a warm washcloth and hold it to your cheek (in front of your earlobe) as you fall asleep. The warmth helps relax your jaw muscles.
Think you’re grinding at night? Need more tips? Ask us your questions about bruxism at your next appointment!