Grinding your teeth is one of the annoying ways your body responds to stress, like sweating or tapping your foot, only it often happens at night while you're asleep. So, chances are you don't give it any thought at all, except when you have your annual teeth cleaning or your sleep partner says something about it. But left untreated, grinding your teeth, aka bruxism, can lead to some pretty serious side effects, which is why you shouldn't brush it off.
Before you can figure out how to treat your bruxism, it's important to understand exactly what it is. Bruxism is categorized as involuntary grinding, gnashing, or clenching of the teeth, either at night or during the day, according to the Mayo Clinic.
The tricky thing about teeth grinding is that there's usually not a direct cause, says Mahvish Ahmed, DDS, a dentist at Smile Design Manhattan. It could be an issue with your temporomandibular joint (aka TMJ), it could be caused by orthodontia (like braces or retainers), or it could just be related to stress, she says. "It's multifactorial, so pinpointing the direct cause is sometimes difficult unfortunately," she says. The only way to figure out what the cause is of your grinding is to go to a dentist and have your mouth examined. Like any medical condition, if bruxism goes neglected, there can be long-term consequences, she says.
For starters, bruxism can lead to chronic muscular pain and joint discomfort, particularly in the TMJ (which is referred to as TMJ disorder), Dr. Ahmed says. Obviously, mashing your teeth over and over each night can slowly wear down the integrity of your teeth, she says. Your teeth may be more prone to micro-fractures or breakage, which could make them more sensitive to certain foods, she says. Sometimes, your jaw can be so stiff from grinding your teeth that it compromises your ability to chew properly, she says. Grinding your teeth all the time is also just physically uncomfortable. It can lead to headaches, earaches, migraines, as well as disrupted sleep (for you and your sleep partner), Dr. Ahmed says.
So, given all that we know bruxism can do to your body, what can you do to prevent it from getting really bad? Once your doctor determines whether the grinding is muscular, joint-related, or a combination of both, they can propose a treatment that will be best for you, Dr. Ahmed says. Often, these therapies are designed to "protect the teeth so the grinding doesn't progress," she says. For example, wearing a custom-fit mouthguard at night, or getting facial massages can be helpful, she says. Some people also seek out Botox injections to relax the muscles around the jaw and provide relief.
There are plenty of options for treating bruxism, depending on the severity of your symptoms and your budget. But the key is to take action as soon as you feel it's causing you problems. "A lot of people will ignore it until it gets really bad," Dr. Ahmed says. "At that point you’re gonna need more treatment, so talk about it earlier on and do something about it to prevent it from getting worse."