Bruxism is the medical term for teeth grinding. A range of symptoms indicates this condition, which can lead to tooth and jaw problems and even affect other areas of the face and head. Often, stress, anxiety, and concentration cause bruxism, and more rarely it develops due to drug use.

What is Teeth Grinding?

Bruxism is the involuntary grinding, gnashing, and clenching of teeth, usually while a person is asleep. About 50% of people grind their teeth on occasion, but only about five percent do so on a regular basis and with a considerable amount of force. Generally, a partner or parent is the first to notice the condition, as they hear the grinding while the affected individual is sleeping.

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The Effect of Grinding on Teeth

Bruxism leads to wear and tear on the teeth, as well as toothaches, often when the individual first awakens. The tooth enamel may chip or crack, and teeth can become sensitive to hot and cold. In serious cases, people might experience broken teeth or damaged fillings or crowns. Teeth can even grow loose or eventually fall out.

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Jaw Damage

Bruxism can affect a person’s jaw. Clenching when angry, anxious, or concentrating, and grinding the teeth can strain the jaw joint, leading to aches or restricted movement of the joint. People might notice stiffness or pain while chewing, usually during breakfast. Some people develop enlarged jaw muscles due to the excess work the muscles do.

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Other Symptoms

While bruxism often causes symptoms in the teeth and jaw, symptoms can extend to other areas of the head, including headaches and ear pain. The face and temples may ache or feel stiff, especially after waking. Some people notice tooth indentations in the tongue and lines of raised tissue inside the cheek.

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Causes of Bruxism

Various factors can cause bruxism. In addition to stress and anxiety, genetic factors can contribute to teeth grinding; many people have family members with the condition. Sleeping disorders, such as sleep apnea, can cause teeth grinding. Smoking, caffeine, and alcohol can increase the risk of developing bruxism, as can illegal drugs such as ecstasy, heroin, and meth. In most cases, a dentist can help people determine the most likely factors and address these underlying causes.

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Bruxism in Children

It is common for children to develop bruxism as the jaw and teeth are constantly growing and changing. They often outgrow the habit by the teenage years, before it becomes damaging. Teeth grinding is at its worst for children as baby teeth come in and then again when permanent teeth come in. Experts believe improperly aligned teeth cause the issue, though other illnesses and conditions -- such as nutritional deficiencies, allergies, endocrine disorders, and pinworms -- may also contribute.

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Preventing Tooth and Jaw Damage

Often, dentists will prescribe a nighttime mouth guard called a bite splint to patients with bruxism. This device protects the teeth because it wears down instead of the teeth themselves. A bite splint does not address the underlying causes of bruxism, however.

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Treating Damage from Bruxism

Because bruxism causes tooth damage, people with the condition may need dental treatment. The extent of treatment depends on the amount of damage and may include bridges, crowns, and root canals. In serious cases, teeth may need to be replaced by implants or full or partial dentures.

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Prevention of Bruxism

To appropriately treat bruxism, the patient and dentist must address the cause. When the trigger is stress or tension, stress management therapy can help some people, as may muscle relaxants. Sticking the tip of the tongue between your teeth can help retrain surrounding muscles. Avoiding other triggers such as alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco can reduce teeth grinding. Appropriate treatment of preexisting sleeping disorders, nutritional deficiencies, allergies, pinworms, and endocrine disorders can help prevent bruxism.

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Professionals Who Can Help

Dentists can assess the influences that contribute to teeth grinding. They can perform dental repair work and fit mouth guards to prevent future damage to teeth. A psychologist can train clients in stress management techniques that will help reduce incidences. A primary care physician can treat underlying health conditions that may contribute to teeth grinding, and physiotherapists can loosen stiff muscles and joints in the face, head, and jaw.

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