For some, their clenching or grinding is evident when they wake up with a sore jaw or headache or notice themselves while driving or studying. For others, the signs may not be so obvious. Other people in the house may tell them that they can hear their teeth grinding from down the hall at night and, still, others have no idea they are grinding until they see their dentist for a check-up.
The chewing apparatus system includes the teeth, gums, bones, muscles, and joints. It is intended to be used daily for about the time that it takes to eat three meals (an average of 45 minutes). If you clench during the day or grinding at night you are overusing the system. If this system is being abused for hours during the day or at night in excess of the use during meals, the system will begin to break down.
Bruxism vs. Clenching
Bruxism is defined as the dynamic grinding of teeth whereas clenching is the static contact of teeth together. When your mouth is naturally closed, your teeth do not contact. It is only when you use your muscles to clench that the teeth are touching. Both of these actions are parafunctional (aka dysfunctional) and can therefore cause damage to the chewing system.
The causes of bruxism are not well-understood. It’s believed that stress, difficulty sleeping, caffeine, alcohol, smoking, sleep disorders, an abnormal bite, or crooked or missing teeth can be contributing factors.
Discomfort from ear infections, allergies, colds, irritation in the mouth, misaligned teeth, and other problems often cause children to grind. Many children grind their teeth throughout childhood and often grow out of the habit once their adult teeth have erupted and their bite has changed.
Clenching or grinding can include pain or discomfort in the jaw muscles or joint. It is often concurrent with headaches, toothaches, earaches, or jaw joint pain. Besides causing pain or discomfort, bruxing can do a lot of damage to your teeth over time. Even mild and infrequent grinders often show signs of wear on their teeth and gums that indicate clenching or grinding. Often in heavy grinders, when the jaw is slid from left to right, the worn areas of the teeth fit like pieces of a puzzle.
These signs can be evident to you if severe enough, but even mild signs can be evident to your dental professionals. Damage to the teeth include cracks or fractures, chipping, gum recession, wear on the chewing edges, sensitivity in worn areas where dentin or roots are exposed, loose teeth, and others.
If you are concerned that you may be clenching or grinding, your dentist can assess your teeth, gums, muscles, and joints to determine if you are causing damage from this habit.
The habit of grinding or clenching your teeth can be mild or severe, occasional or frequent. If the clenching habit is mild and only occurs during the daytime, it may be worthwhile to look into behavioral modifications to help you consciously quit the habit. If the habit is frequent, severe, or happens when unconscious, you may want to discuss with your dental professional what treatment options are available to you.
For children, treatment is generally not warranted because their teeth and jaws change and grow so quickly and most children outgrow this habit by the time all of their adult teeth have erupted (12 years). As baby teeth exfoliate and new teeth erupt, the habit usually does not have the time with a single tooth to create enough damage to require treatment. In addition, treatment is difficult to prescribe for young children considering night guards are not a viable option for a number of reasons.
For those whose sleeping disorder is causing the bruxism, a sleep appliance may be beneficial. For others, missing tooth replacement, orthodontic treatment, selective tooth grinding, full mouth reconstruction (in severe cases), diet change, stress reduction, nighttime muscle relaxant, warm compresses, meditation, counseling, and exercise can all help depending on the cause. Most often, the easiest and most immediately effective solution is the fabrication of a night guard appliance. The difference between a night guard and your retainer or bleaching trays is the material and thickness. The thickness of the night guard allows for tooth separation, muscle relaxation, and protection of your teeth. A custom-fit night guard made by your dental team will be less bulky than the boil-and-bite style night guards from the store and will be easier to get used to, but the drugstore version can work in a bind.
If you have any more questions, talk to Dr. Stephan about what signs she may see and what you can do to protect your teeth and limit the damage done to prevent further dental appointments, aches, or pains.