The unconscious tightening of the jaw can cause dental and joint issues. Clenching teeth together puts enormous strain on the teeth and the bones of the jaw, as well as the muscles and joints. Most people do not consciously clench their teeth together for long periods of time, but unconsciously clenching teeth can be a serious health issue. The medical term for teeth grinding or clenching as an unconscious behavior is bruxism.
Unconscious clenching of teeth can occur while someone is awake or asleep. If it is while they are awake, it may be termed diurnal or day bruxism. In many ways, diurnal bruxism is easier to both diagnose and treat. Diagnosis is made easier because someone may notice themselves clenching teeth, bringing the bruxing to conscious attention. Treatment can also be easier, as it may be more obvious what is causing the clenching of teeth. For example, when the bruxism is in response to stress, strategies to recognize the onset of stress and mitigate the bruxing response can succeed.
Sleep bruxism may be known as night or nocturnal bruxism, and is harder to both recognize and treat than diurnal bruxism. Diagnosing sleep bruxism can be difficult, as you or your sleep partner may not directly witness the teeth grinding occurring. In these cases, indirect indications of teeth grinding may be used for a diagnosis.
Over time and with increased frequency, clenching teeth damages the teeth. The teeth are designed to chew through materials that are soft, so when they chew or grind against other teeth they become damaged. Unfortunately, this damage may be permanent, as the hard outer coating of teeth does not regenerate once it has been worn away. This damage can help to make a diagnosis of bruxism, and with sleep bruxism, it may be the only sure sign that bruxing is occurring.
Other symptoms or signs of teeth grinding can be mistaken as other health issues. Pain in the ears, temples, or joints of the jaw may indicate bruxism, but may also just feel like a normal headache.
Bruxism can be treated with biofeedback. For example, a muscle-activity detector can be placed on the jaw muscles to register activation of the masseter or temporalis muscles. The technical name for this device is an electromyograph, or EMG, and when it is connected to an auditory cue it can provide feedback to a bruxer. Hearing the tone that is triggered by the EMG brings the otherwise unconscious behavior to the bruxer’s attention, providing an opportunity to stop bruxing.
Further improvements can be made if the bruxer takes a moment to relax or meditate when they find themselves bruxing. Stress and anxiety can increase the risk of unknowingly clenching teeth. If the bruxer makes an effort to relax, or takes steps to respond to stressors differently, further reductions in bruxing can be made.
Unfortunately, there is very little evidence that supports or refutes the claim that magnesium supplementation can cure bruxism or jaw clenching. There have not been any randomized control trials that use magnesium supplements to treat bruxism, so it is not possible to say one way or the other whether magnesium helps with bruxism or clenching teeth.
Clenching your teeth while you sleep might lead to tiredness or pain in your jaw in the morning. Pain may also be present in the teeth, neck, face, or can even feel like an earache if you are clenching or grinding your teeth at night. Teeth grinding can wear down the enamel, or hard outer coating, of your teeth. This can expose the softer tissues underneath like bone or even nerves.
Over time, clenching your jaw can make the muscles in your jaw bigger. Just like any skeletal muscle, the jaw muscles that are used when clenching your teeth respond to increased usage by growing larger. This can result in a square or boxy facial shape as the masseter and temporalis muscles grow from clenching.
Sleep apnea mouthpieces or snore guards superficially resemble mouth guards for teeth grinding, but they do operate differently. Snoring and sleep apnea can be mitigated with a mouthpiece that fits over the teeth and uses an elastic or spring to draw the lower jaw forward. The plastic material may provide the teeth some protection from grinding. However, bruxism should be treated as a separate condition, and a snore guard should not be used in hopes of stopping teeth clenching.
If you consciously clench your jaw or teeth together it is not known as bruxism. Bruxism is the unconscious clenching of teeth that can occur while awake or during sleep. So, while not all clenching of teeth is bruxism, all bruxism involves clenching of teeth.
© 2021 American Sleep Association.