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Do You Grind Your Teeth?

Then here's what you need to know.

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chatter teeth with dentist's mirror
Getty Images
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You probably don’t even know you’re doing it. But teeth grinding (aka bruxism) — originally attributed to the few people who were stressed, anxious, drank a lot of alcohol and had sleep disorders — is all of us now. And a September study by the American Dental Association’s Health Policy Institute found that more than half of dentists are reporting an increased number of patients who are grinding their teeth.  (Shocker!) 

Why you’re grinding your teeth

Stress is the number one culprit, says dentist Joseph Salim, owner and founder of Sutton Place Dental Associates in New York. Another big one is sleep apnea. “People who suffer from sleep apnea have trouble breathing at night, which can then cause them to grind or gnash their teeth unconsciously,” says Bobbi Stanley, a dentist with Stanley Dentistry in Cary, North Carolina. Bruxism is also hereditary: Half of people with it have a close family member who also experiences it, according to the Sleep Foundation. Prior to the pandemic, an estimated 22 to 31 percent of adults had bruxism, but it is hard to determine the exact numbers, as many people who have it don’t know they do it.

When it occurs

Bruxism mostly happens when you’re sleeping and you’re not aware of what you’re doing. But Salim is seeing an increasing number of patients doing this during the day when they’re working.

What happens when you grind your teeth

The most common signs and symptoms are recession of the gums, teeth sensitivity especially to the cold, jaw pain and headaches, Salim says. When patients grind their teeth — which is at times accompanied by clenching their teeth, they lose the enamel from the chewing surfaces of their back teeth (the molars). As the enamel thins, those teeth become much more sensitive to temperature changes, and to very sweet and sour foods. Enamel is what protects the teeth from feeling extreme temperatures and tastes, and the thinner it gets, the more is felt by the patient. “It is similar to wearing a short-sleeve shirt during winter months when the weather is cold, versus wearing a long and thick sweater,” Salim says. 

How do you even know if you’re doing it?

Sometimes, the grinding is accompanied by loud noises, which can be heard by a partner. Often, you’ll also wake up in the morning with a sore jaw and mouth. Throughout the day, you may experience painful headaches, Stanley says. If you sleep alone, you may not know you’re doing this until you see your dentist, or if you notice you have some tooth sensitivity, Salim says. 

How to prevent it

There are no cures for teeth grinding, but there are ways to manage it. If you had bruxism as a child, you have a 35 to 90 percent chance of this continuing into adulthood. One of the most popular approaches is to use a customized night guard to disengage your teeth during your sleep, as the appliance will undoubtedly prevent your teeth from grinding against each other, Salim says. Many people with severe cases will also use Botox to weaken their masticator muscle to take away some of its ability. “I have seen very good results with the night guard and Botox combination over the past few years, as many patients who had previously complained of pain and stiffness of the jaws, headaches, etc., have reported a significant improvement due to these treatments,” Salim says. In the best-case scenario, the night guard will retrain your brain so that eventually, you’ll stop grinding even without it, says Pooneh Ramezani, a dentist and cofounder of Dr. Brite, a company selling oral and hygiene products. Cutting back on caffeine will also help, as well as quitting smoking, Stanley says. If the problem persists, seeing a therapist could cut down on your stress levels, which may also relieve your teeth-grinding habit.