Are you grinding your teeth at night? The condition, called bruxism, can be a painful problem if it goes untreated.
By Wyatt Myers | Medically reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
You may not even know you’re doing it. But if you wake in the morning with jaw pain, headaches, or chipped enamel on your teeth, you might be grinding your teeth in your sleep, a condition called bruxism.
In most instances, teeth grinding is a nighttime problem – if you have bruxism, you’re likely doing it while you’re asleep and might not realize it. “Many times, someone’s spouse or partner is the first one to notice the bruxism due to the terrible grinding sounds it makes when the person is sleeping,” says Timothy Chase, DMD, a cosmetic dentist in New York City.
Researchers still aren’t exactly sure why bruxism occurs in some people, but there are a number of theories. “Studies have suggested that nocturnal bruxism is mediated by the central nervous system and is linked to sleep arousal patterns, brain chemistry, certain drugs, alcohol, smoking, and genetic factors,” says Karyn Kahn, DDS, a dentist with the Cleveland Clinic. “Medications, such as SSRIs that affect dopaminergic systems, have been associated with bruxism. Personality and psychological factors, stress, and anxiety have been shown in some studies to affect bruxism in some individuals.”
Bruxism does appear to be an equal opportunity nuisance. Men and women are affected equally, though bruxism is more common in children and less common as you age. “Approximately 8 percent of the adult population is affected by sleep bruxism,” says Aurelio Alonso, DDS, PhD, an assistant professor at the Case Western Reserve University School of Dental Medicine. “It can also affect 40 percent of children less than 11 years old.”
Know the Signs of Teeth Grinding
The most common symptom, of course, is the grinding itself, but this leads to a number of secondary concerns. “The signs and symptoms of bruxism are teeth wearing, jaw muscle tenderness, head muscle tenderness around the temple area, jaw muscle swelling, morning headaches, tongue indentation, and pain or tenderness during muscle movement,” says Dr. Alonso.
Over time, the short-term effects of grinding your teeth can lead to greater complications if the bruxism isn’t addressed. “If left untreated, it will lead to symptoms such as headaches, both tension and migraine, earaches, ear congestion, buzzing or hissing in the ear, ringing in the ear, tinnitus, hot- and cold-sensitive teeth, cracked or broken teeth, loose teeth or crowns, sore and painful jaw muscles, and worn-down teeth,” says Shila Yazdani, DDS, a cosmetic dentistry specialist in the Washington, D.C., area. “In some instances, the damage to teeth is permanent and may lead to extensive restorations of teeth or tooth loss. It may also lead to chronic muscle and jaw joint pain, which can lead to depression and get worse with stress.”