We think of sleep as the most relaxed state our bodies can reach—and, for the most part, that’s true. Yet there are exceptions. One of the biggest ones is a phenomenon that is the epitome of non-relaxation. It’s characterized by tension and destruction that somehow slipped its way into the chilled-out world of sleep: bruxism.
What Is Bruxism?
If you’ve never heard of bruxism, you’ve likely heard of its more common name, teeth grinding. The condition, however, refers to not only grinding but also unconscious gnashing and clenching of the teeth (oh, the drama!). Doing this in your sleep (sleep bruxism) is considered a sleep-related movement disorder, a class of conditions that occur near or during sleep and affect the quality of your shut-eye.
Nighttime bruxism, which afflicts 8% of adults, can also have repercussions on your waking life. It can lead to tension headaches, damaged teeth, disorders in the tempromandibular joints (TMJs), and receding gum lines. Not to mention all the side effects that come with inadequate sleep. When it’s severe enough, the sound of grinding can also create sleep issues for your partner. Not exactly a soothing lullaby.
There’s evidence that those with nighttime bruxism grind their teeth during periodic arousals of the cardiac and respiratory systems during sleep. These arousals trigger increased muscle activity (in this case, in the jaw) and can happen up to 15 times a night. What makes someone more prone to this is a complicated question.
What Causes Bruxism?
There’s not a general consensus, but the cause is likely different from person to person. Possible causes of nighttime bruxism include abnormal tooth alignment; acid reflux into the esophagus; and use of certain anti-depressants or stimulants like coffee, alcohol, tobacco, and some illegal drugs.
Research also suggests that those with other sleep disorders like sleep apnea or snoring are more likely to suffer from teeth grinding. In fact, one study showed that sleep apnea is the highest risk factor for bruxism in the general population.
However, the most common cause—to which about 70% of bruxism cases can be attributed—is anxiety and stress. When daily stressors are not addressed head on, the body still needs to process that emotional strain. Think about your body’s reaction when something upsetting or stressful happens: you tense up, perhaps clenching your jaw and pressing your teeth together. Those with bruxism experience this while they’re asleep, as a response to concerns that go unaddressed while awake.
How Do I Know If I Have It?
Self-diagnosing bruxism can be tricky, since you’re asleep when it happens. However, here are some signs that indicate it could be an issue:
- Flattened, fractured, or chipped teeth
- Tooth sensitivity
- Pain, fatigue, or soreness in the jaw
- Headache, especially in the temples
- Your partner notices the sound of grinding or clenching.
How Do I Treat My Bruxism?
If you think you are might have bruxism, your first step should be to make an appointment with your dentist or doctor. Explain the symptoms you’ve been experiencing and anything in your life you think could be relevant (new stressors, a change in sleep patterns).
In many cases, your dentist will recommend a mouth guard to keep your teeth separated at night (with the added bonus of reducing any cringe-inducing sounds for your partner). There are a number of different mouth guards to choose from, but most dentists will recommend the hard, custom-fit guard, since it’s both smaller and more effective at preventing grinding.
If you have an associated sleep disorder, your teeth grinding will likely improve after you address the other issue. In one study, those suffering from bruxism and sleep apnea saw an improvement in both conditions when only the latter was treated.
For almost every case of nighttime bruxism, however, stress management is a smart idea. Good sleep hygiene, meditation, and more proactive ways of dealing with life’s stresses can be enough to treat bruxism without any medical intervention. Plus it has the added bonus of making your days more enjoyable as well. So take some time to relax during your days. You and your partner are likely to escape the grind and enjoy more restful nights.