Grinding your teeth, whether at night unconsciously, or throughout the day, can mean bad news for your dental health. Photo by Vinh Dao.

When I was a young man I remember the dentist telling me that if I didn’t stop grinding my teeth at night, that I would have nothing left once I grew up to be a man. Thankfully, I’m not quite there yet, so I still have a few nubs left.

Teeth grinding, otherwise known as bruxism (the medical term for grinding the teeth and clenching the jaw), is a serious problem for dental health. People sometimes grind their teeth without it causing any symptoms or problems. But regular, persistent teeth grinding can cause jaw pain and discomfort and wear down your teeth. It can also cause headaches and earache.

Teeth grinding generally occurs subconsciously during our sleep cycle. It’s usually associated with contributing factors, such as stress or anxiety. Bruxism also affects people when they’re awake, although this is more likely to be clenching the teeth and jaw, rather than grinding their teeth. Most people do it subconsciously while concentrating or when they’re in stressful situations.

When stress is high, teeth grinding gets worse. Trying to remain mindful of high-stress periods is the first step to prevention.

Contributing factors

Bruxism almost always occurs in association with other factors. More than half of bruxism cases that occur during sleep are thought be related to stress and anxiety.

There’s also an association between bruxism and obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA). OSA is a sleep disorder where your breathing is interrupted during sleep. How bruxism and OSA affect each other isn’t currently fully understood.

Teeth grinding can also be caused by taking antipsychotic and antidepressant medication, particularly a type of antidepressant known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

Your lifestyle can also have an effect. For example, regularly drinking alcohol, smoking and using recreational drugs such as ecstasy and cocaine increases your risk of bruxism.

Doctors sometimes refer to teeth grinding caused by an underlying condition as primary bruxism. Teeth grinding associated with a medication, condition or lifestyle factors is often known as secondary bruxism.

Handling bruxism

There are a number of possible treatments for teeth grinding, but only a few have been shown to be effective. Behavioural therapies and the use of mouthguards or mouth splints can be effective in managing the symptoms associated with bruxism.

Mouth guards and mouth splints work in the same way by reducing the sensation of clenching or grinding teeth, and also help prevent any wear on the teeth. Other treatments, such as muscle-relaxation exercises and sleep hygiene, may also help manage your symptoms.

If you grind your teeth while you’re asleep, you may need to wear a mouthguard or mouth splint to protect your teeth from further damage. If you have an anxiety or stress-related problem, a course of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may be recommended. The aim of CBT is to help you manage your problems by changing the way you think and how you act.

It may be possible to break the habit of teeth grinding using habit-reversal techniques.

Cutting down on drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco, and other bad habits can really improve sleep quality, and further reduce stress and anxiety. Make sure to check with your doctor about your health.