Bruxism is a medical condition in which people grind their teeth — sliding their teeth back and forth over each other, sometimes while clenching the jaw tightly. People with bruxism are often unaware they're doing it, clenching and grinding without meaning to. Bruxism is relatively common; around 85–90% of the general population will grind their teeth to a degree at some point during their life. However, only about 5% will develop a clinical condition. While bruxism can happen during the day or the night, bruxism during sleep can often cause more serious problems because it is harder for people to notice and control.
Bruxism has many different possible explanations. For most people, a stressful lifestyle or event is the likely trigger. However, medical experts also agree that other factors — including certain drugs and medications, diseases or syndromes, allergies, a bite problem or misalignment and even sleep position — may all contribute to bruxism. Bruxism may even run in families, with some evidence suggesting a genetic influence. Some people only experience bruxism during the day, while others only grind their teeth at night. Others have a combined type of bruxism and experience teeth grinding all the time.
Teeth are made of a hard substance similar to bone. Each tooth has four parts:
It's easy to take your teeth for granted until there's a problem with them. Healthy teeth are necessary for many essential daily functions, including eating, speaking, singing and even smiling. Bruxism can affect all four parts of the tooth, leading to different types of dental damage.
When you have bruxism, the repeated grinding of the teeth can weaken and damage your teeth. Over time, bruxism can change the shape of your teeth, leading to problems with your bite or gum health. More severe grinding can even cause tooth fractures and loss of periodontal support. Some people with bruxism even lose their teeth.
Tooth damage due to bruxism can also cause difficulty with eating or speaking as well as tooth and mouth pain. Also painful? The dental bills you're likely to incur fixing these problems.
Given that bruxism can cause tooth damage, it's no surprise that it can also result in tooth sensitivity. Even without visible chips or other damage, the persistent grinding and scraping that happens during bruxism can disrupt teeth under the surface, causing you to wince whenever you bite down on something or try to enjoy a hot or cold beverage.
Bruxism doesn't just affect the teeth. When bruxism is left untreated, it may lead to jaw muscle and joint problems. These disorders are sometimes called TMJ (temporomandibular joint) or TMD (temporomandibular disorder). They can cause aches and pains in the affected muscles and joints even when you're not grinding your teeth.
The combination of sore muscles and joints, plus tension in the jaw and face from bruxism may frequently lead to headaches. Many people with bruxism wake up with headaches in the temporal area after grinding their teeth during the night. Neck aches and earaches are also commonly associated with bruxism. While waking up in pain is not how most people want to start their day, these associated pains have an even more detrimental effect: They cause more stress, ultimately making bruxism even worse.
Nocturnal bruxism is considered a sleep disorder. It's the third most common sleep disorder after sleep talking and snoring. The grinding sounds caused by bruxism can be so loud that they actually wake up the sleeper or their partner. The pain and tension caused by bruxism also cause sleep difficulties.
Scientists think certain sleep positions may make bruxism worse. Your doctor may refer you to a sleep study to confirm you're experiencing nocturnal bruxism.
Though bruxism can be a difficult thing to stop, there are some things doctors suggest to help end tooth grinding:
If you think you may have bruxism, don't delay in speaking with your doctor or dentist. Better oral health and better sleep may be in your future if you address the problem now.
© 2021 American Sleep Association.