Teeth grinding or clenching is often linked to tension or stress. But all the causes of this common phenomena are not yet fully understood. Even fetuses in utero have been witnessed grinding their jaws. Smoking or caffeine may be contributing factors. Grinding may be part of specific highly competitive personality types. It can also result from misaligned teeth that pull on the jaw. In addition, new research has shown that teeth grinding may be an instinctual survival response.

 Why do people grind their teeth during sleep cycles?

During sleep cycles, the brain loops through lighter and deeper stages of slumber. As it approaches a deep sleep, every muscle in the body loosens up and relaxes. When the jaw is completely relaxed it expands and can block the tongue and airway. Studies have shown that individuals who slept with partially blocked airways would grind their teeth. This involuntary act reopened the airway for freer breathing. When given a device to keep their airways open, like a dental appliance to hold the jaw in place, breathing improved and tooth grinding stopped.

 What are the effects of teeth grinding at night?

 Although the act of grinding may keep those in slumber from suffocating overnight, there are some very negative consequences.

  •  TMJ disorders: Most of the time bruxism (tooth grinding) is mild. Severe and frequent grinding activity can aggravate the temporomandibular joints (TMJ) leading to tightness and pain. Headaches and earaches can also result from the strain.
  •  Tooth enamel damage: In serious cases a lot of force is being brought down on the teeth. The continued habit breaks down precious enamel causing tooth sensitivity and may result in broken or chipped teeth.
  •  Grinding can start at any time: This habit can develop later in life or be brought on by unexpected challenges in life as a result of increased anxiety and stress.
  •  You might not know you are doing it: Many people don’t know they grind their teeth. It usually happens during sleep. Some individuals become aware of this practice by sleep partners who hear the sound or by a dentist who discovers the damage to their teeth. They may experience headaches, earaches, facial or jaw pain.
  •  It occurs most commonly in children: About 15 percent of children grind their teeth at night. Kids appear to clench and grind while suffering from earaches and the discomfort of teething. This may also have something to do with the development and growth of both the jaw and teeth. Children with psychological disorders, those who talk while sleeping and kids who drool overnight are more susceptible to bruxism. It actually has been seen to run in families. However, youngsters who grind their teeth typically stop doing so by the time they reach puberty.

The good news…

In most cases there is no treatment needed. A change in sleep position or avoiding smoking and caffeine before bedtime may be an effective solution. If the grinding is severe the most common approach is through the use of a mouth guard. This dental appliance fits over the teeth to alleviate joint pain in the jaw, and protect teeth from damage. Your dentist can provide you with an efficient, custom fit mouth guard.