Do you ever wake up with a tight jaw, or something that feels like a dull earache or a headache? If so, it’s just possible you’ve been grinding your teeth in the night. The National Sleep Foundation estimates that sleep-related teeth grinding, otherwise known as bruxism, could affect up to 20 percent of children under age 11. Although bruxism declines with age, eight percent of those aged 60 and over grapple with the condition.
Causes of teeth grinding
Teeth grinding at night is something of a puzzle. The medical and dental professions aren’t entirely clear as to the causes. An association between psychological issues has always been assumed but never entirely proven. Even so, the Bruxism Association claims that nearly 70 percent of bruxism occurs as a result of stress or anxiety. Additional factors such as sleep apnea, alcohol and smoking, snoring and fatigue can all play a part.
Medication, most notably selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) used in the treatment of anxiety and depression, may also contribute to bruxism. Research published in Current Treatment Options in Neurology also indicates that progressive neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s are linked to teeth grinding.
In his blog post The Real Reason You Grind Your Teeth, Mark Burhenne, D.D.S, says the most recent research also points to teeth grinding as a survival mechanism. Our muscles relax as we move towards deeper sleep and this can have the effect of blocking the airway. Teeth grinding has the effect of reopening the airway. So, while years of teeth grinding damages teeth, increases sensitivity and jaw damage, it can also save us!
The general consensus around teeth grinding is that no single cause can be identified. Some of the reasons may also indirect. For example, something like stress and anxiety can lead to increased smoking, alcohol intake, use of recreational drugs and/or prescribed medication. Any or all of these factors are thought to increase the chances of bruxism. Cutting them out should, in principle, reduce your chances of teeth grinding.
Mouth splints and mouth guards offer some protection to the teeth but they do not treat the underlying causes of teeth grinding. If you feel your teeth grinding may be due to stress or anxiety it is worth considering cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Additional self-help measures such as relaxation, exercise, a balanced diet and regular sleep may also help.
Published research by the Canadian Dental Association states, “no therapy has been proven effective in treating sleep bruxism,” but the avoidance of risk factors (e.g., alcohol, caffeine, drugs) coupled with psychological therapies may help.
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Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.