Updated: March 1, 2020
Teeth grinding at night (nocturnal bruxism) is a common sleep disorder that many people experience occasionally. It's harder to manage than teeth grinding during the day. People who grind their teeth at night chronically can grind down their teeth, loosen teeth, wear away their enamel, and can lead to needing serious dental work such as crowns, bridges, root canals, dentures, and implants. It can also worsen or cause temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMD/TMJ), and even change the appearance of your face.
The Bruxism Association explains that teeth grinding is found more frequently in those who have sleep apnea and that those with other sleep disorders such as sleep talking, sleep paralysis, those with violent behaviors during sleep. Parkinson's and Huntington's disease can also cause bruxism.
There are other factors that are associated with teeth grinding:
- use of caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco
- use of medications for sleep, depression, and anxiety
- misalignment of the jaw or teeth (though this hasn't been proven)
- loud snoring
It's estimated that nearly 70% of all teeth grinding occurs because of stress. One study from the Institute of Dentistry in Finland found that both anxiety and severe stress were associated with bruxism. Another study found that Police offers in Brazil had a 50% rate of bruxism, which is 7 times higher than the average for adults in the same age group.
Research has shown that before someone grinds their teeth at night, the heart rate increases as well as brain activity, which suggests that the central nervous system plays a role.
According to the American Academy of Oral Medicine, bruxism is less common the older someone is, with it being most common in young children and least common in older adults. In the case of children, bruxism often occurs due to obstructed breathing due to enlarged tonsils and adenoids, and it sometimes occurs in children with hyperactivity disorder. Children who grind their teeth often do it after their first teeth appear, and after adult teeth come in.
The Bruxism Association says that the most common symptom of teeth grinding is a headache, and people who suffer from it are 3 times more likely to suffer from headaches than non-teeth grinders. Other common symptoms include:
- TMJ pain and sore muscles
- facial myalgia (pain in your face)
- sore gums
- clicking or popping of the jaw
- an earache
- tight shoulders
- sleep disruption of the teeth grinder and their partner
- generalized teeth sensitivity
Many times people who grind their teeth find out that they're doing it because their partner tells them. It's possible to have bruxism without experiencing symptoms.
Bruxism can be diagnosed by a dentist who will ask about your history (such as if you had whiplash), the symptoms experienced, and perform an x-ray and physical examination. They will look for excessive wear on the teeth as well as enlarged jaw muscles.
Tooth wear can be a result of diet (such as too many acidic drinks like pop/soda), but dentists can tell the difference between wear from bruxism and from the diet.
How to Stop Grinding Your Teeth
The first thing you need to figure out is what may be causing your bruxism. If you're dealing with depression, anxiety, stress, a misaligned jaw, you should talk to a professional, in this case usually means a dentist or sleep specialist. Those whose bruxism is due to sleep apnea will often stop teeth grinding after the sleep apnea has been addressed.
Here are some of the most common techniques used to reduce or stop teeth grinding at night:
- Wear a night guard. These go by many names such as occlusal bite guards, occlusal splints, or bite plates. These are custom made by your dentist to cover your top and bottom teeth. These appliances are put on before you go to sleep.
- Wear a mandibular advancement device. These are for people whose bruxism is due to snoring and sleep apnea. These units bring your bottom jaw forward, creating more space for you to breathe at night.
- Avoid or reduce consumption of alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine.
- Stop chewing gum and don't chew on pens, pencils, your nails or anything that isn't food.
- Reduce or eliminate foods that require a lot of chewing, such as steak or nuts.
- If you find yourself grinding your teeth during the day, stop yourself immediately.
- Relax your jaw muscles at night before you go to sleep by massaging them or holding a warm washcloth against both sides of your jaw.
- Journal before you go to bed as part of your regular nightly routine. This can help reduce stress.
- Practice meditation. Even short periods has been shown to reduce stress.
- Practice yoga. Yoga can be a great way to get exercise, relieve stress. Many people have found that practicing yoga releases muscle tension.
- Don't work in bed. Don't keep your laptop near your bed and get rid of anything that you associate with work and stress.
- Hypnosis. A case study from the Department of Psychology at Kent State University found that hypnosis could be effective for bruxism.
- Tapping. Tapping is considered an emotional release technique, and also a type of psychological acupressure. Though there's no research to support its use for teeth grinding, it has been found to be effective for PTSD, so it's hopeful that it can be used for other stress-related disorders as well. In this study, 65% of practitioners that used the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) found that more than 60% of PTSD clients were fully rehabilitated. These clients were also undergoing other therapy, especially cognitive behavioral therapy.
- Massage. Massage can be an effective stress-reducing technique.
- Physical therapy. The American Academy of Craniomandibular Disorders and the Minnesota Dental Association have cited physical therapy as an important treatment of temporomandibular disorders (TMD). It has been found to relieve pain, reduce inflammation, and restore oral function.
- Acupuncture. The American Physical Therapy Association cited several studies that support the use of acupuncture.
- Laser therapy. In a Turkish study, patients with TMD who were given 15 low-level laser therapy sessions, along with daily exercise, were found to have significantly reduced pain as well as increased mobility.