Tooth grinding is a very common dental problem impacting an estimated 30 to 40 million adults and children. Teeth grinding or jaw clenching may cause symptoms like a headache, ear pain and even muscle pain in the neck and shoulders. On the surface, these symptoms may seem completely unrelated to the teeth, and most patients are completely unaware that they’ve developed a tooth grinding habit until serious dental damage occurs, or until they relay their symptoms at a regular check up with their dentist.
Most patients who grind their teeth do so at night during their sleep, but many individuals also clench their jaws tightly on and off throughout the day. This happens subconsciously while patients are performing tasks that require concentration and focus, like working on a project or taking an exam, or in stressful situations like driving in heavy traffic. Patients can develop a tooth grinding habit at any age, and it is a condition frequently seen in children.
One of the most common symptoms of bruxism is a headache, and many patients report frequent headaches, especially upon awakening. This is because the muscles used to clench the jaw or grind the teeth are held tightly throughout the night, resulting in tension headaches. According to the Bruxism Association, individuals who grind their teeth indeed have a three times greater risk of developing chronic headaches than their counterparts. Additional symptoms include swelling of the face, muscle tension and stiffness in the neck, chronic ear pain and for some individuals even the development of obstructive sleep apnea. Patients that grind their teeth also frequently experience worn down tooth enamel and cracks and chips in their teeth.
“Patients that grind their teeth may experience tooth fracture or even tooth loss as a result of their habit,” says Dr. Stefania Caracioni, D.D.S., L.V.I.F., a Topeka, Kansas, dentist. This is due to the prolonged pressure and friction on the teeth during grinding or jaw clenching. “Many individuals with bruxism suffer from its side effects until a major dental event occurs, like a broken tooth or extreme tooth sensitivity,” explains Caracioni. “It is when the patent relays their other symptoms to the dentist that a connection is made to tooth grinding.”
When the connection to tooth grinding is made, the dentist and the patient can look at the cause behind that habit. The Bruxism Association states that around 70 percent of teeth grinders and jaw clenchers do so as a direct result of stress and anxiety. In particular, stress and anxiety that stems from stress and pressure-filled work environment. Other causes of the disorder include smoking and tobacco use, high caffeine consumption and depression. Some sleep disorders, like obstructive sleep apnea, are also believed to cause an individual to clench their jaw and grind their teeth. Some patients may have a bite that is out of its natural alignment, which can cause clenching and grinding, as the patient subconsciously works to return its jaw to its natural position during sleep.
By identifying the cause of the disorder, the patient can look at making lifestyle changes to help put an end to their tooth grinding habits. Quitting smoking, reducing alcohol and caffeine consumption and treating sleep apnea can help to reduce teeth grinding frequency. Most dentists recommend patients who suffer from bruxism to wear a dental appliance to correct their bite if necessary, reduce strain on the muscles of the jaw and to protect their teeth from enamel damage.
“There are several interventions available for patients who grind their teeth,” says Caracioni. Patients with the symptoms of teeth grinding are encouraged to talk to their dentist to learn more about treatment options. “Just one dental checkup may just save you from years of pain,” says Caracioni.