Life hands us plenty of stress, and many people believe they have no choice but to just muddle through it. But our bodies often react to everyday pressures in surprising ways. For example, many people grind their teeth, often without knowing it — a habit that dentists call bruxism.
A 2021 survey by the American Dental Association’s Health Policy Institute showed that more than 70% of dentists noticed signs of teeth grinding and clenching in their patients, an increase of nearly 10% over the previous year. More than 60% of dentists noted that patients had problems with the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), including jaw pain and headaches.
Signs that you might be grinding your teeth
Most people aren’t aware that they are clenching or grinding their teeth. Dentists and dental hygienists are often the first to notice the signs of teeth grinding, which include chipped or cracked teeth or worn, damaged spots along the edges of teeth. While most people grind their teeth while they’re sleeping, many also clench or grind during the day, especially when they’re feeling tense, worried or pressured.
If you are grinding your teeth, you might notice:
- Pain or tenderness in your jaw
- Dull headaches
- Plugged, painful or itchy ears
- Neck pain
Is stress the only cause of teeth grinding?
Though bruxism is usually thought of as a symptom of stress, it can also be caused by:
- Sleep disorders
- Teeth that don’t line up properly
- Missing or crooked teeth
One study revealed that teeth grinding is associated with tobacco and alcohol use. Researchers found that people who smoke or drink alcohol or coffee are twice as likely to grind their teeth as people who don’t.
Taking steps to protect your teeth
If you grind your teeth, it’s important to safeguard them from the damage this habit can do. Your dentist may recommend a night guard to protect your teeth while you sleep. A custom guard, made from a special mold that your dentist creates, will give you the closest, most comfortable fit. Night guards are also sold online and in stores, but may not provide the same protection as a guard made just for you.
Keep in mind that night guards are not the same as sports guards, which are designed to protect your teeth while you’re skiing, skateboarding, or playing active sports such as hockey, football, baseball or basketball. A mouth guard designed for sports and other high-impact activities has extra cushioning that probably won’t feel comfortable for sleep.
Getting at the root cause of teeth grinding
Clenching or grinding your teeth is a possible sign that your mind and body need help to cope with the pressures of life. You might start by talking with your primary care physician about ways to engage the relaxation response that calms your body when you’re feeling stressed. Meditation, counseling, exercise, massage and deep-breathing exercises have been shown to be effective. Paired with a night guard, healthy stress management will help protect your teeth and mouth from the damage that clenching or grinding can do.
Because teeth grinding can have other causes, you may need additional help from your doctor or dentist in finding the root cause. For example, if there are signs you are struggling to get enough rest at night, a sleep study can measure what’s happening while you sleep and how your body responds to sleep problems.
Teeth grinding in children
Children often grind their teeth. However, because their teeth and jaws are growing so quickly, this habit does not always cause serious damage. Many children outgrow it by adolescence.
With kids, teeth grinding isn’t usually the result of stress. It might be caused by:
- Irritation inside the mouth
- Allergies, especially those that make it hard to breathe
- Teeth that don’t line up properly
- If you’re concerned about your child’s teeth grinding, ask your family dentist for advice and possible solutions.
Other causes of jaw pain
If your jaw is tender or sore, teeth grinding might not be the cause. Jaw pain can also be caused by:
- Sinus problems
- Gum disease
- Problems with your temporomandibular joint (TMJ)
The right treatment will depend on what’s happening in your mouth and body. Your dentist will do a careful exam, possibly including dental x-rays, to look for the possible cause and point the way to steps that will offer you relief.