Teeth are meant to bite into food and chew over and over every day of our lives. But if you have a bad teeth grinding or clenching (bruxism) habit, it can really do a number on your smile. Identifying teeth grinding causes and figuring out “Why do I clench my teeth?” can help save you a lot of headaches, both literally and figuratively.
Bruxism is the clinical word we use to describe teeth clenching and grinding habits. To “brux” means you’re clenching your teeth together and causing premature wear or extra force. Someone with bruxism concerns will usually have flat, worn, loose teeth, or even chipped tooth enamel because of all of the extra force that’s being exerted onto their teeth.
Normally there are two types of teeth grinding or bruxism:
Daytime— Daytime teeth grinding or awake bruxism is when you’re clenching your teeth while you’re wide awake, even if you don’t realize you’re doing it.
Nighttime— Sleep Bruxism that happens when you’re asleep and have no idea what’s going on. You usually wake up the next morning with sore jaw muscles after nighttime teeth grinding.
When dentists spot signs of bruxism during your dental exam, they’ll usually start to ask a series of questions. Both are related to your lifestyle, personal habits, health history, diet, and sleep health. The reason why they’re doing this is that bruxism tends to tie back to specific types of triggers or risk factors.
Trying to self-diagnose bruxism isn’t always easy, especially if you’re not sure of the cause behind it. Ruling out these seven common causes can help you get that much closer to treating the condition altogether:
Depending on your personality and needs, stress relief usually comes in the form of some type of self-care. Maybe it’s meditation or frequent massages. Or a warm bath at least once a week. Therapy/counseling and medication also work well for stress management in many situations. If you enjoy exercising or just taking walks during your lunch break, the free endorphins that you get are like immediate stress relief that can last all day long.
Snoring is one of those things that hit or miss. You might snore every night, or only once in a while. If you snore, there might also be a chance that you have some type of sleeping disorder. Believe it or not, people with sleep apnea almost instinctively clench their teeth together while they’re sleeping. It has to do with your brain and body experiencing oxygen deprivation. Symptoms of sleep apnea include occasional snoring, fatigue, weight gain, depression, high blood pressure, headaches, and sore teeth and jaw muscles when they wake up in the morning.
Ask your dentist about a sleep apnea screening or talk to them about getting a snore mouthguard. Special sleep appliances serve a double purpose: they improve the way you breathe so that you’re less likely to snore, but they also prevent you from clenching your teeth while you’re sleeping. Some dentists even offer take-home sleep studies so that you can diagnose your sleeping disorder without an overnight trip to a sleep lab. Just take note: only dentists can fit you with an FDA-approved oral sleep appliance. You can’t get them from a medical physician, and the over-the-counter versions won’t work as well.
Nicotine is a stimulant, so just like other types of medications, it can cause people to be more likely to clench and grind their teeth. According to some research, smokers were 95% more likely to experience bruxism than people who didn’t smoke. Whether you’re smoking or vaping, it doesn’t matter. And since smoking makes it harder to get over periodontal disease, that infection combined with a bad teeth grinding habit could really set you up for major problems down the road.
Work with your dental and medical provider to develop a smoking cessation plan. Some people do well with patches or prescription medications to help them cut back on smoking. Giving up nicotine isn’t just good for your mouth; it also boosts your immune system. Most people can’t quit cold turkey, so don’t try to overdo it. Be patient with yourself, try alternative strategies, and maybe even pick up a new hobby to help fill the void, like going on a brisk walk, listening to an e-book, or just chewing a piece of sugar-free gum whenever you get a craving.
If you suspect that you might have obstructive sleep apnea or another sleeping disorder, ask your dentist about a take-home sleep study. These bedside testing devices can monitor your sleep and relay information to a physician to diagnose whether or not you have sleep apnea. From there, you can treat it appropriately. Oral appliances for sleep apnea are a win-win if you have both sleep bruxism and OSA. These specialized appliances naturally open your airway and prevent your teeth from clenching shut on one another. You can’t get oral sleep appliances from a medical doctor, though; only a licensed sleep dentist can fit you for one. Bonus: they’re FDA-approved for treating sleep apnea and can even reduce the need for a bulky CPAP machine.
If you’re going to indulge in the occasional drink, try to give yourself plenty of time between your alcoholic beverage and your actual bedtime. Don’t drink right before you go to sleep, this can help stop teeth grinding at night. Better yet, cut down on how many beverages you consume and how frequently you drink during the week. Even a few nights a week where alcohol is consumed is enough to put you at a higher risk of bruxism and sleep problems.
If you’re drinking about eight cups or more of coffee per day, you’re 1.5 times more likely to experience sleep bruxism. Fun fact: caffeine can also contribute to other stress and anxiety symptoms, which will further increase the chances that someone will clench and grind their teeth. Experts recommend that you don’t want to drink more than about 4-5 cups of coffee each day at the most (400 milligrams to be exact.) If you tend to drink energy drinks, make sure you’re reading the labels. Some have as much caffeine as what you’d get from three cups of coffee.
Try to limit how much caffeine you consume each day. This includes everything from coffee and tea to energy drinks and soda. Gradually start to cut back on your caffeine intake. Look, I’m not going to tell you to give it up altogether! Ideally, you don’t want to drink any caffeine in the late afternoon or early evening and want to try to keep it below six cups of coffee a day or less. Cutting back on your caffeine or coffee consumption will need to be a slow and systematic process, similar to giving up tobacco products. Start with small goals and go from there.
Mouthguards physically prevent your teeth from wearing each other out. Even though tooth enamel is extremely strong, constant tooth-on-tooth wear will ultimately make your teeth flat, worn, or break them altogether. A mouthguard prevents that from happening by putting a protective barrier over one row of your teeth so that the other doesn’t fully engage against it.
Custom-fitted mouthguards offer the best protection because they are more durable than over-the-counter options. Plus, they’re more comfortable because they’re molded to your teeth. The custom-fit mouthguard makes them easier to wear during the day or while you’re sleeping, which in turn means you’ll probably be more compliant with wearing them than you would a store-bought appliance.
Even though mouthguards are designed to give out over time, they are relatively inexpensive compared to the costly dental work needed for full mouth reconstruction.
If you’re not sure where to start, buying an over-the-counter mouthguard isn’t going to hurt anything. But if you want the best results, get one that’s made by your dentist’s office.
Related: Best Mouth Guards For Teeth Grinding
Bruxism isn’t a situation you want to ignore. Just like TMJ disorder or cavities, it needs to be treated before major complications start to flare up. The best treatment to stop teeth grinding will vary from one person to the next, depending on the cause behind their habit. During your dental exam, your dentist will help you pinpoint the best type of treatment. One may not work or be appropriate, while another one is. Sometimes a combination of two or three treatments provides the most effective relief.
Generally speaking, treatment for teeth grinding or bruxism falls into one of three categories:
Since bruxism affects your teeth directly, your dentist may want to take a few precautions to protect your smile and/or treat the clenching at its source. Generally speaking, there are two types of treatments for bruxism that you’ll find in the dentist’s office: one for preventing it and the other to create a healthier biting relationship.
In most scenarios, dentists are going to recommend a mouthguard as the first line of defense against bruxism. Other therapies are typically combined with mouthguards as needed.
Bruxism appliances like mouthguards or bite splints are one of the best things to have if you clench and grind your teeth. Instead of wearing out your tooth enamel, you can bite against a piece of acrylic that’s easy to replace at any time. Some mouthguards even help train your teeth not to clench together by preventing your temporomandibular joint (TMJ) from fully engaging.
Related: Best Night Guards For Teeth Grinding
If you have misaligned teeth or teeth that don’t fit together properly, it can cause our jaw joint to overwork itself. We might inadvertently clench and grind our teeth together just to try to make things fit right whenever we’re eating or resting our mouth throughout the day. Your dentist may recommend orthodontics, new dental work, or adjustments to the occlusal (chewing) surfaces of teeth to change how things fit together.
The American Sleep Association and most dentists will recommend some type of over-the-counter medication to help manage the pain caused by teeth grinding. Others offer therapeutic relief for a longer time span, such as injectables. Only in rare situations will dentists want to recommend something like muscle relaxers because they don’t necessarily “fix” the situation and prevent you from being able to do normal things like drive a car. You can also talk to your medical doctor about medication to help manage stress or anxiety, as those can inadvertently cause you to grind your teeth without something to help “take the edge off.”
Muscle relaxers used to be one of the options of last resort for anyone with bruxism because they didn’t fix the problem and only provided temporary relief. If you have major tooth and jaw pain, they might still be prescribed, but options like Botox might be more effective.
Botox has an off-label use that doubles as a natural muscle relaxer to relieve sore jaw muscles. When it’s injected at key points around your jaw, it lessens the muscle tension around your mouth, forehead, jaws, and TMJ. Most people see results for at least 3-6 months at a time, making it a super-convenient option for anyone looking for an alternative to prescription muscle relaxers.
Stress and anxiety affect us all in different ways. Some of us tend to internalize it, basically beating our bodies up from the inside out. If you know you’re experiencing anxiety or stress, talk to your doctor about possible medication that can help you better manage the way your body is reacting to it on a day-in, day-out basis. Just take note that a lot of drugs used for behavioral health can also contribute to bruxism, so talk to your doctor and dentist about the best game plan.
There is a LOT to be said about how therapy can help with issues like bruxism, headaches, and even stomach problems. When our minds and bodies better handle that stress, the muscle tension that comes along with it usually improves, if not goes away entirely. Learning new ways of balancing stressors in our lives or making changes in how we handle them can have a lasting impact on our smile and body overall. If you’ve never gone to therapy before, there are probably more types than you’re aware of. Each one works differently and brings its own advantages to the situation. Here are just a few:
All too often, stress and anxiety come from an external source we can’t control. Working with a licensed therapist can help us to respond differently in stressful situations so that we don’t internalize it physically. When factors like work or family environments are causing us undue stress, a personal counselor is one of the best resources you can have. Your teeth aren’t the only thing that will thank you for it!
Cognitive behavioral therapy can help you teach yourself or “unlearn” your bruxism habit. It’s being consciously aware of your physical feelings and stimuli so that you can redirect them and/or manage them differently on a physical level. For example, if you tell yourself “lips together, tongue apart” whenever your mouth is at rest, you can train your teeth not to clench together during the day.
This is a type of dental therapy that focuses on the movement and function of your mouth as a whole. From the way you swallow to how your tongue and jaw muscles rest between use, myofunctional therapy is an effective tool for treating issues like bruxism, mouth breathing, orthodontic complications, and more!
If you’re looking for practical ways to stop clenching and grinding your teeth, here are a few important tips. Additionally, you can wear a mouthguard or practice cognitive behavioral therapy to really get ahead of tooth damage before it happens. That being said, these are probably the easiest things you can do at home every day to reduce your inclination to clench your teeth:
Stress manifests itself in our bodies in different ways. Some of us clench our teeth or tighten up our shoulders. Practicing meditation, relaxation exercises, stretching, cutting back on our caffeine intake, or changing our work atmosphere (within reason, that is) can help lessen the stress our body absorbs on a day-to-day basis and reduce teeth grinding.
Look, drinks like coffee and alcohol affect us physically, and that’s the whole point of drinking them. But some of our bodies just don’t handle it the same. Caffeine can be a stimulant that makes you get the jitters or clench your teeth. Or alcohol before bed could trigger sleep disturbances, which in turn lead to bruxism.
If you’re taking medications like Concerta or Ritalin in the evening, or even caffeine for that matter, you’re more likely to clench and grind your teeth while you’re sleeping. Stimulants just have that effect on people. At least if you take them during the day, you can try to consciously make an effort to stop yourself.
The first step in recovering from a bad bruxism habit is to visit your dentist’s office. They have a firsthand view of what’s going on in your mouth and can offer professional advice to take out all of the guesswork on your end. If possible, at least have them make a mouthguard to wear so that you can avoid additional damage to your teeth. Some people’s mouths naturally “learn” not to clench when their jaws are prevented from clenching together all the way.
Bruxism is not “normal” or healthy. If you’re experiencing symptoms of repeated teeth clenching and grinding—and you can’t improve it with lifestyle changes—you need to see your dentist. Ask about getting a mouthguard made and having an evaluation to rule out any potential risk factors, such as sleep apnea.
Why is teeth grinding harmful, it can cause broken or worn-out dental work. Your dental team can help you stop your teeth clenching as well as repair any areas damaged by your bruxism habit. They may even have additional recommendations about treatments you hadn’t considered before. Such as Botox or orthodontic treatment.
Do you constantly catch yourself clenching or grinding your teeth? Do you wake up with sore teeth and jaw muscles every morning? You might have a bad sleep bruxism habit that you need to correct before you wear out all of your teeth. Bruxism can be caused by anything from stress to medication to sleep apnea. Having the right resources—such as a night guard or sleep apnea treatment—will boost your health and prevent you from spending thousands of dollars on restorative dental treatment. If you just started clenching your teeth or have had bruxism for years, don’t ignore it; see your dentist for an exam.
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