There have been many stories in the news about a suspected rise in teeth grinding — also known as bruxism — due to pandemic anxiety. Dentists around the country say they are seeing patients with more cracked teeth, jaw pain and tension headaches resulting from excessive teeth grinding and clenching.
What Is Bruxism?
Bruxism is a condition where you grind, gnash or clench your teeth without being aware of it. It can occur while you are awake or asleep. Research has shown that there is a significant link between stress levels and bruxism; in fact, one recent study showed that people who have bruxism have higher levels of stress hormones in their body.
Stress is not the only cause of bruxism, however. The condition can be caused by a physical reason such as abnormal alignment of teeth, abnormal bite, missing teeth or crooked teeth. It can also be caused by a condition such as Parkinson’s disease or a side effect of some medications. In addition, your risk for bruxism is increased if you smoke, drink a lot of caffeine or take illegal drugs.
The Problems Bruxism Causes
Grinding your teeth increases the force in the muscles you use to chew. This is why it results in symptoms as wide-ranging as pain in the temporomandibular joint of the jaw (TMJ), facial pain, neck pain, headaches and even earaches, as well as tooth damage. The friction on the teeth can damage tooth enamel, and the edges and borders of the teeth can break.
Bruxism can cause the following conditions:
- worn down, flattened, fractured or chipped teeth
- worn tooth enamel that exposes deeper layers of your tooth
- tired jaw muscles, jaw pain or tightness
- sensitive teeth
- headaches and earaches
- chronic facial pain
- damage from chewing the inside of your cheek
- indentations in your tongue
Correcting the Problem
One of the most common signs of bruxism is the tension headache, so get a dental check-up if you are experiencing these frequently. Because bruxism is related to sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, as well as psychological stress, a dentist may recommend that you see the appropriate therapist or sleep medicine specialist.
Dentists can help protect the teeth and jaws with splints or mouth guards. A custom splint constructed of a hard acrylic to fit over the upper and lower teeth is the best protection. A custom mouth guard is softer than a splint and is more likely to dislodge during teeth grinding.
What You Can Do
While the first step in treating bruxism is to see your dentist and find a way to protect your teeth from the wear and tear, a holistic approach is often the best course of action. Try activities that engage the frontal cortex such as mindfulness, meditation, and yoga. Relaxation techniques, physical exercise, and talk therapy might all help with the problem.
Other tips to reduce teeth grinding include:
- Avoid foods and drinks with caffeine.
- Avoid alcohol, which may intensify teeth grinding.
- If you feel yourself clenching your teeth during the day, position the tip of your tongue between your teeth to relax your jaw.
- Don’t chew gum or anything other than food.
- Hold a warm washcloth to your jaw to help you relax jaw muscles.