Back when I was growing up, my sister always complained that she could hear me grinding my teeth while I slept. It wasn’t until I was in college that I took any action, getting fitted for a mouthguard by my dentist. He pointed out that a lot of my molars were worn down due to my nighttime habit.
What is bruxism?
Teeth-grinding, also known as bruxism, is actually pretty common, affecting up to 16% of the adult population. “Bruxism is a nonfunctional grinding of one’s teeth that does not involve chewing,” explains Cary, North Carolina-based Bobbi Stanley, DDS. “While it can occur during the day, it is during sleep that teeth grinding does the most damage.”
When you grind your teeth during sleep, Stanley says, you can easily exert more than 1,000 pounds of pressure. “To put this in perspective, it takes approximately 30 pounds of pressure to bite through a raw carrot,” she says.
Damage caused by bruxism goes beyond the kind of wear and tear that my molars displayed. It can also lead to chipped teeth, pain and sensitivity, even a sore jaw or headache the next day. “When enough of the tooth is worn away, procedures such as root canals, gum surgery, and crowns may be necessary,” Stanley says.
So what can you do to keep your teeth in tip-top shape while you sleep-and prevent waking up in pain? Here, learn about the most common causes of bruxism and get Stanley’s tips for how to stop grinding your teeth at night.
Causes of bruxism
Experts aren’t always sure why people grind their teeth, but these are some of the most common causes.
Stress and anxiety: The Bruxism Association notes that close to 70% of teeth grinding is the result of stress or anxiety. A study published in the journal Head & Face Medicine found that shift workers who were stressed on the job were more likely to grind their teeth at night.
Antidepressants: Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil can cause bruxism, says Stanley. A study published in the Journal of the American Dental Association notes that these meds suppress dopamine, the brain chemical that controls motor activity, leading to excessive jaw movement and clenching in some people.
Sleep apnea: If you have sleep apnea, you’re more likely to grind your teeth at night, says Stanley. Sleep apnea happens when the muscles in your throat relax, blocking your airway and causing you to stop breathing momentarily. According to the Bruxism Association, sleep apnea is often accompanied by snoring, gasping, mumbling, and teeth grinding.
Acid reflux: The American Sleep Apnea Association points out that acid reflux may trigger bruxism. When you have acid reflux, stomach acid creeps up into your esophagus, burning the tissues of your upper airway. Your brain may signal your jaw to tense up in response, leading to grinding. (Here’s how to keep acid reflux from ruining your sleep.)
Alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco: Alcohol and tobacco mess with your dopamine levels, while caffeine stimulates muscle activity.
How to stop grinding your teeth at night
“Bruxism doesn’t go away on its own,” says Stanley. Addressing the root cause is key to managing the condition. For example, if you’re experiencing stress or anxiety, therapy and relaxation techniques like meditation can ease your teeth grinding habit. And “if the cause is medication, sometimes it’s possible for your physician to switch you to a different one,” Stanley says.
For sleep apnea or acid reflux, raising your head in bed or sleeping on your side can mitigate symptoms. More severe cases of sleep apnea may require wearing a CPAP mask. You may also benefit from lifestyle changes, like cutting back on booze, coffee, and cigarettes.
A trip to the dentist is also in order. The dentist can make sure you don’t do any more damage to your teeth by fitting you with a night guard, a custom fitted plastic mouthpiece that goes over your top or bottom teeth. I’ve been wearing a night guard for 10 years now, and while it’s not my favorite accessory, my teeth-and anyone who sleeps within earshot of me-are certainly happier.