Bruxism (Teeth Grinding): Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Bruxism (teeth grinding) is a condition that often goes unnoticed until painful consequences occur. Learn how to take action if you think that you might struggle with bruxism while sleeping.

By Nicole Gleichmann

Has your partner told you that you grind your teeth at night? Or maybe you’ve noticed that your little ones are gnashing away as they’re fast asleep. While mild bruxism, or teeth grinding, is unlikely to cause any damage, moderate to severe bruxism is a serious condition that can lead to cracked and chipped teeth, tooth and gum pain, headaches, and even arthritis when left untreated.

What is Bruxism (Teeth Grinding)?

Bruxism is a condition marked by grinding or clenching your teeth together. There are two types of bruxism:

  1. Awake bruxism: Teeth gnashing or clenching that occurs when you’re awake. This type of bruxism is more common in women than in men.
  2. Sleep bruxism: Teeth grinding or clenching that occurs when you’re asleep. This type of bruxism occurs roughly equally in both men and women.

Realizing when you’re having bruxism-related pain or tension can help many people with awake bruxism know that they have this condition. Unfortunately, those with sleep bruxism are often little-the wiser.

Sleep bruxism is typically the most severe type of bruxism thanks to two factors. The first is that many people with this disorder are unaware that they have it, or even if they know, are unlikely to realize how severe it is until they have a night full of teeth grinding that brings about pain or other severe consequences. Additionally, the level of damage that occurs is usually greater in those with sleep bruxism due to the inability to monitor their actions when sleeping.

Sleep bruxism is categorized as a sleep-related movement disorder, which is a type of sleep disorder that is marked by involuntary physical movement during sleep. When left untreated, sleep bruxism can cause a host of related issues, including temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders, tension headaches, and dental damage.

Symptoms of Bruxism

How Do You Know If You Grind Your Teeth?

It might seem like you would know if you grind your teeth at night; wouldn’t it wake you up? But often, people can experience bruxism for years without realizing it. When this happens, you might learn that you grind your teeth at night when you wake up with a sudden, sharp pain from grinding your teeth so hard that you chip or crack a tooth.

Some symptoms of bruxism include:

  • Tight jaw muscles or jaw pain
  • Temporomandibular joints (TMJ)
  • Tooth or gum pain
  • Tooth temperature sensitivity
  • A partner hearing you grind your teeth while you sleep
  • Chipping or cracking a tooth at night
  • Loose teeth
  • Worn down teeth, typically noticed during a dental visit
  • Sleep talking
  • Waking up with headaches

What Causes Bruxism?

Exactly why bruxism happens is still not fully understood. Scientists believe that sleep bruxism occurs during periods of arousal during sleep when your heart and respiratory activity increase. Sleep arousal is often accompanied by a boost in muscle activity, including the muscles in the jaw.

Bruxism can be a condition all on its own with no outside cause, however, it is often a side effect that occurs from another disorder. Those with the following conditions are at an increased risk for bruxism, or teeth grinding:

  • Anxiety conditions, chronic stress, or other negative emotions
  • Obstructive sleep apnea
  • Snoring
  • Sleep paralysis
  • Sleep talking
  • REM sleep behavioral disorder
  • Malocclusion (abnormal teeth alignment)

Additionally, certain medications and other substances can cause bruxism, including anxiety and depression medications, Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease medications, coffee and other caffeinated beverages, tobacco, and alcohol.

Bruxism is most common in children, with parents reporting that 38% of their children under 17 years old grind their teeth, and the least common in adults over 65.

What to Do if You Suspect You or Someone Close to You Has Bruxism

Typically, bruxism is discovered through one of three ways:

  • Someone hears you grind your teeth
  • A dentist sees the tell-tale signs
  • Related pain occurs, especially a tooth crack or chip at night

If you notice that someone in your family is doing some weird things with their mouth while they’re sleeping, it’s important to bring it to their attention. Whether it’s yourself, your spouse, or your children who grind their teeth, the next step is seeking professional treatment.

This typically includes scheduling a visit with your dentist. They can evaluate you and decide whether to give you a mouth guard or refer you to a sleep specialist. During visits with your sleep specialist, they may have you do a sleep study to further examine your symptoms.

Bruxism Treatments

While some people with extremely mild bruxism may not need treatment, others will require help to reduce teeth grinding and clenching.

One of the most common ways to help those with bruxism is the use of dental treatments that can improve symptoms, including mouthguards, splints, and Mandibular Advancement Devices (MADs), a treatment often used for sleep apnea that can help those with bruxism. For some, sleep medications like muscle relaxants are used to encourage a relaxed jaw.

Sometimes you will need to seek care for an underlying cause of bruxism, for example, if you have obstructive sleep apnea or anxiety difficulties. This might include behavioral therapy, a sleep apnea machine, or other treatments depending on your situation.

No matter what your course of treatment, you will likely be given a custom mouth guard that can protect your teeth from the dangers imposed by teeth grinding. This can save you thousands in dental bills (a cracked tooth can lead to the need for a root canal or even a tooth implant).

Additionally, the right kind of mouth guard may be able to help both bruxism and another condition, like TMJ disorder, where patients experience pain and trouble with their jaws that can become permanent.

Final Thoughts

Bruxism (teeth grinding) is a serious condition that can lead to dental problems and other risks when left untreated. If you suspect that you might be grinding your teeth, get to a dentist right away. They can get you on the right track, allowing you to control your bruxism.

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