Since it often occurs during sleep, you may not even know if you’re an occasional grinder. But for some people, grinding or clenching is a chronic condition that can cause damage to your teeth — and even your overall health.
Though it’s often thought of as a habit brought on by stress or anxiety, grinding your teeth is more often caused by an abnormal or misaligned bite, or a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea. If you frequently wake up with a sore jaw or headache, grinding your teeth during the night may be to blame. And if you find yourself tightly clenching or grinding your teeth during the day, chances are good that you may also be doing the same thing while you sleep. Over time, this will cause wear and tear on your teeth, damage dental work and previous orthodontia, and even result in tooth loss, which can all require expensive repair work, such as crowns, bridges, implants and dentures. It can also cause or worsen temporomandibular disorders (TMD), which can lead to chronic pain, difficulty chewing and even changes in facial appearance. The bottom line is that grinding your teeth is much more than just an annoying habit; it’s something that should be discussed with your dentist and properly treated.
If a sleep disorder or serious structural problem is to blame for your grinding, those issues must be addressed and treated first, as they can have many other health consequences. But if your grinding is less severe, the most common treatment is wearing a protective mouth guard at night to prevent grinding. If your dentist observes signs of excessive grinding, such as cracked fillings or worn or loose teeth, he or she will likely recommend a custom-fitted guard. A device fitted by your dentist will be more comfortable and much more effective than a generic mouth guard that isn’t specifically designed for you. In fact, generic mouth guards may do more harm than good, so it’s best to avoid them altogether and speak to your dentist instead.
Of course, the best way to preserve your teeth and avoid problems is to limit teeth clenching and grinding in the first place. While not all teeth grinding can be eliminated, there are certain things you can try to help alleviate the problem, including:
- Avoid chewing gum (or chewing on pens or pencils) during the day, as this conditions your jaw muscles to clench and may make you more likely to grind your teeth.
- Reduce your consumption of caffeine. Not only can too much caffeine interfere with your sleep, it can also increase stress during the day, which can worsen clenching and grinding.
- Reduce or eliminate alcohol — particularly within two hours of going to bed. Many people find that they grind more intensely after drinking alcohol.
- Practice keeping your tongue between your teeth during the day. It will force you to relax your jaw muscles, and may help break the habit of clenching.
- Try meditating for 10 minutes before going to sleep every night. This may help further relax you — and your jaw muscles — and lessen grinding or intensity during the night.
- Hold a warm washcloth to your face, right under your earlobe, for a few minutes before going to bed. The warmth will help relax your jaw before you go to sleep.
This article first appeared in the June 2019 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.