Could you be grinding your teeth and not even know it?

Do you often wake up with a dull headache or a sore jaw? Do you sometimes find yourself clenching your teeth?1 You may be grinding your teeth in your sleep.

Many people grind or clench their teeth occasionally. And if it’s only done once in a while, it doesn’t usually cause any harm. But if you grind your teeth often, it can lead to serious dental, facial, and jaw problems.

Symptoms of teeth grinding

Many people who grind their teeth do it in their sleep. So it can be hard to know if you’re doing it. In fact, you may not realize you’re grinding your teeth until you start to develop problems. That’s why it’s important to see your dentist regularly. He or she may be able to spot the signs before damage is done. It’s also important to learn the symptoms of teeth grinding yourself. You may be able to recognize them and get help before it causes problems.

The medical term for teeth grinding is bruxism. Symptoms of bruxism may include:

  • Teeth grinding or clenching that may be loud enough to awaken your sleep partner.
  • Teeth that are worn down, flattened, fractured or chipped
  • Worn tooth enamel, exposing deeper layers of your tooth
  • Increased tooth sensitivity
  • Jaw pain, or tired or tight jaw muscles
  • Earache, caused by severe jaw muscle contractions, and not a problem with your ear
  • A dull, almost constant headache
  • Chronic facial pain
  • Damage from chewing on the inside of your cheek
  • Indentations on your tongue2

The problems it can cause

Bruxism can damage dental work or loosen teeth. The pressure can cause cracks or fractures in the teeth.1 It can also hurt the temporomandibular joint or TMJ. These are joints on each side of your mouth that connect the lower jaw to the skull. Bruxism can even result in hearing loss, or change the appearance of your face over time.3

What causes bruxism?

Bruxism can develop at any age. Pain or discomfort from colds, ear infections or allergies may cause children to grind their teeth. Taking care of these health issues can stop the grinding.

Several other things may also contribute to bruxism, particularly in adults:

  • Stressful situations
  • Problems sleeping
  • An abnormal bite, or teeth that are not aligned properly
  • Crooked or missing teeth1

Prevention and treatment

Depending on your dentist’s diagnosis, one or more treatments may be recommended.

Your dentist may suggest that you wear a mouth guard while you sleep. The mouth guard slips over the teeth in one jaw and prevents teeth from coming into contact. It can also relieve some of the pressure of grinding and clenching.

If the problem is an abnormal bite, your dentist may reduce the high spots on one or more teeth. For serious cases, your dentist may suggest reshaping the biting surfaces with crowns or inlays.1

If stress is the cause, it can be helpful to find ways to relax. You might try listening to music, taking a walk, or enjoying a warm bath. If face muscles are sore from clenching, try applying a warm, wet washcloth to the side of your face. Counseling can also help point to effective ways of coping with stress.1 It can also help to cut back on foods and drinks that contain caffeine. Common ones are colas, chocolate, coffee and some teas. Avoid alcohol, too. Grinding tends to get worse after drinking alcohol.3

Try not to chew on anything that isn’t food, such as pencils and chewing gum. Your muscles get used to clenching, which makes you more likely to grind your teeth. Finally, train yourself not to clench your jaw muscles. If you notice that you’re clenching or grinding during the day, put the top of your tongue between your teeth. This helps train your jaw muscles to relax.3

Having regular dental exams is the best way to catch bruxism before damage is done. Your dentist can best spot signs of it in your mouth and jaw.2 If you notice symptoms, don’t wait for your next checkup. See your dentist right away.

This material is intended for informational use only and should not be construed as medical advice or used in place of consulting a licensed medical professional. You should consult with your doctor.

Last updated December 2013