THOUSAND PALMS, Calif. - Teeth-grinding and clenching while sleeping isn't just incredibly annoying for your bed partner. It could also be what's causing your headaches, jaw pain and wearing down of your teeth.
Called nocturnal bruxism, teeth-grinding occurs as a response to the teeth not fitting quite right, says Ohio dentist Matthew Messina, DDS, a consumer advisor spokesperson for the American Dental Association.
"For some reason, their teeth don't fit smoothly, or the place where their teeth fit the best isn't where the muscles are the most relaxed," Messina explains to HuffPost. So what's happening is "the body is trying to remove the interference by wearing them [the teeth] out. And eventually, the body will win -- we have enough chewing power to crack teeth, split teeth, break fillings."
An official diagnosis of bruxism is audible tooth-grinding for three or more nights a week, for at least three months, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. And it can come and go. It's most common among children, and less frequent in adults, though if it's present in childhood, it's seldom outgrown in adulthood. It can lead to headaches, jaw pain, wearing down of the teeth, loose teeth, tooth pain and tooth sensitivity.
Stress is a known aggravator of bruxism. That's because when you're stressed, you gain energy that needs to be released somehow -- and for certain people, that "somehow" comes in the form of muscle contractions.
"Everyone responds to stress in a different way -- what stresses you out may stress me differently," Messina says. "And that's why not everyone grinds their teeth ... If you have an existing bite issue and you throw in some stress, the body may find clenching and grinding as a relief."
However, not all cases of bruxism have the same cause. For some people, it could be a bite problem. For others, it could be more of a joint issue. Or it could be the result of a change in sleeping position, or sleeping style. That's why it's important to talk to a health-care professional about identifying the exact cause of your teeth-grinding.
Messina explained that something as simple as knocking your chin against something or biting too hard on a popcorn kernel can lead to a very minor adjustment in your bite, which could then potentially trigger teeth-grinding. "It's best to think of our teeth as being set in mud, rather than stone," he says.
We asked Messina and Dr. Erik K. St. Louis, M.D., head of the Section of Sleep Neurology at the Mayo Clinic, to explain to us what works, and what doesn't, to make the grinding stop.
(Note: Not all of the following may apply to everyone with bruxism -- because the cause of the condition is so personal to each individual, what works for one person may not work for another.)
Cut out the caffeine and alcohol.
For some people, caffeine and alcohol intake can worsen bruxism, so "reducing amount or cutting out both can be helpful to reduce frequency and severity of bruxing, but these measures alone don't usually stop it," Louis says.
Messina adds that if the goal is to quiet the muscles and reduce muscle activity to lessen bruxism, caffeine has the exact opposite effect -- it ratchets up our awareness and alertness levels. So while caffeine won't cause teeth-grinding, it can potentially intensify it.
Applying a warm washcloth over the jaw at night can help.
For people whose teeth-grinding is a result of an acute situation (such as someone who got a blow to the jaw), a warm compress or washcloth pressed to the side of the face can be helpful, Messina says. But for someone who's having long-term clenching and grinding, it may not be that beneficial.
Meditation, yoga and mindfulness could be your ticket to less grinding.
Because these techniques all help to lower stress, they can reduce tension and muscle activity, Messina says.
Consider giving your gum-chewing habit a break.
Louis notes that stopping gum or tobacco chewing might help, as could "avoiding any sorts of oral stimulating activity that emulates chewing movements." Instead deliberately try to focus on relaxing the jaw, he suggests.
Go to your dentist for an oral appliance to help you stop grinding -- don't rely on the store-bought kinds.
Yes, the ones you get from your dentist will likely do you more good than the ones you buy from a store. That's because if you use a store-bought one, you are missing the diagnosis at the beginning for why you're grinding your teeth in the first place. If you skip that step, "we haven't gone through really looking at your bite and muscles and understanding what is your specific problem and designing an appliance to help with that specific situation," Messina says. "There is no one-treatment-fits-all."
The same goes for athletic mouthguards, which are often bigger and squishier than an oral appliance you'd get from a dentist. Athletic mouthguards could actually cause some people to grind more, because they're softer and people can pump their teeth against it, Messina explains. "It'll protect the teeth, so you'll wear out the guard instead of your teeth. But if you're developing jaw muscle symptoms and pain, you want to decrease the amount of clenching and grinding."
Most importantly: If you get an oral appliance from a dentist to stop teeth-grinding, that does not necessarily mean you are doomed to wearing unsexy mouth gear in bed for the rest of your life.
"About 70 percent of people, if they use an appliance and get their bite balanced, we can get them to stop grinding at least most of the time," Messina says. (Though that does means that the other 30 percent will probably continue to grind even with an oral appliance. Unfortunately, there's no way to tell who will be in the 70 percent and who will be in the 30 percent.)