"Keep a stiff upper lip" or "get a grip!" That's often the advice we get—and give—on how to cope with stress. If you take it literally, the result could be grinding your teeth or clenching your jaws. It's called bruxism, and often it happens as you sleep.
Teeth grinding can be caused not just by stress and anxiety but by sleep disorders, an abnormal bite or teeth that are missing or crooked. A study in the November 2016 issue of the Journal of the American Dental Association suggests that teeth grinding is also associated with alcohol and tobacco use. People who drink alcohol and smokers are approximately twice as likely to grind their teeth.
In a September 2020 report, the ADA Health Policy Institute found that more than half of dentists surveyed saw an increase of patients with dental conditions often associated with stress: Teeth grinding and clenching, chipped and cracked teeth, and symptoms of a temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder such as jaw pain and headaches.
The symptoms of teeth grinding include:
- dull headaches
- jaw soreness
- teeth that are painful or loose
- fractured teeth
Your dentist can fit you with a mouth guard to protect your teeth during sleep. In some cases, your dentist or physician may recommend taking a muscle relaxant before bedtime. If stress is the cause you need to find a way to relax. Meditation, counseling and exercise can all help reduce stress and anxiety.
Teeth grinding is also common in children. However, because their teeth and jaws change and grow so quickly it is not usually a damaging habit that requires treatment and most outgrow it by adolescence.
Although in adults teeth grinding is often the result of stress, the same is not always true with children. Other possible causes of teeth grinding in children include:
- irritation in the mouth
- misaligned teeth
If you’re concerned about your child’s teeth grinding, ask your child’s dentist about the potential causes and, if necessary, the possible solutions.
Many adults suffer from chronic jaw and facial pain. Some common symptoms include pain in or around the ear, tenderness of the jaw, pain when biting, or headaches. Many things can cause facial pain, which can make it difficult to diagnose and treat. Your dentist will conduct a thorough exam, which may include X-rays, to determine the cause of the pain.
Possible causes of jaw pain or facial pain include:
- sinus problems
- tooth grinding
- periodontal disease
- problems with your jaw or the temporomandibular joint
Your dentist’s plan for treatment will depend on the source of your facial pain, but recommendations may include:
- mouth protector
- muscle relaxants
- anti-inflammatory drugs
- root canal therapy
- periodontal treatment
If you suffer from jaw pain or facial pain, speak with your dentist or physician for diagnosis and treatment.
Healthy teeth can give you an unforgettable smile, but that’s just the beginning. They also help you speak clearly and confidently. And since chewing is part of healthy digestion, you can thank your teeth for helping you turn food into fuel for every part of your life.
Here are the answers to questions you may have about keeping your teeth and mouth in great shape.
1. How can I keep my breath super fresh?
Fresh breath starts with a clean mouth, so be sure to brush with fluoride toothpaste twice a day for two minutes each time. (Morning and before bed are the best times.) Flossing once a day will clear away leftover food and that sticky buildup (plaque) between your teeth, which definitely contributes to bad breath. Drinking lots of water cleanses your mouth, too, so staying hydrated helps!
Mouth rinses, sprays, sugar-free mints and gum are all fine, but keep in mind they’re a temporary fix – so they can’t do the job alone. Build a good daily routine and you’ll notice a real difference. Find more fresh-breath tips here.
2. Will I need braces?
If you have a bad bite or your teeth are crooked, your dentist might suggest you see an orthodontist. Braces can improve your smile and correct any issues that make it hard for you to bite, chew or speak clearly. Teeth that don’t line up properly might also be harder to clean, which can lead to cavities or gum disease – making braces a smart choice in preventing dental problems later on.
Braces come in many different styles, including tooth-colored plastic braces or traditional metal ones in cool colors. Depending on the issue that needs correcting, you might be able to wear a clear aligner instead. Your dentist and orthodontist can explain your options and help you choose.
3. Do wisdom teeth always need to be removed?
Wisdom teeth – also called your “third molars” – usually come in sometime between your 17th and 21st birthday. Even though they don’t always cause problems, sometimes there’s not enough space in your mouth for these teeth, or they’re in the wrong position to come through your gums without creating other issues.
After looking at your dental x-rays, your dentist might advise you that your wisdom teeth need to come out. Since teeth develop differently in every person, regular checkups will help your dental team monitor what’s happening and recommend the right treatment.
Typically, dentists will recommend removal of wisdom teeth if they:
- Cause pain, infections or cysts
- Could damage nearby teeth
- Raise risks for gum disease or tooth decay
- Need to come out before braces are put on
Learn more about wisdom teeth here.
4. What foods will give me a healthy smile?
Putting together a mouth-healthy diet is easy. Just go to MyPlate, where you can customize a healthy eating plan that tracks with your age, food preferences, activity level and more. The good nutrition built into MyPlate will guide you toward foods and drinks that are healthy for your teeth (and your whole body), including:
- Fresh fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains
- Low-fat dairy products (and healthy substitutes)
- Lean proteins
MyPlate also offers tips to follow if you need to avoid gluten, lactose or other specific ingredients. You’ll also find advice on substitutes you can make if you prefer a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle.
To keep your mouth and teeth healthy, here are 9 foods to avoid – some of them may surprise you!
5. Can smoking make my teeth look gross?
Absolutely, but that’s only one reason you might want to think twice about lighting up. Tobacco in any form – smoking or smokeless – can lead to:
Stains on your teeth and tongue
Dulled sense of taste or smell, making it hard for you to enjoy favorite foods and fragrances
Painful, bleeding gums (possible signs of gum disease)
Higher risks for cavities and tooth loss
Cancer of the mouth or throat
If you’ve already started smoking, dipping or any other tobacco habit, you’ve probably heard it’s not that easy to quit. This is because the nicotine in tobacco is highly addictive. The good news: millions of people have quit using tobacco and you can, too. The sooner you quit, the more your teeth, your mouth, and your whole body will benefit. Here are free resources to help you get started.
6. Can mouth piercings damage my teeth?
Oral piercings or tongue splitting may look cool, but they can be harmful to your teeth and mouth. Here’s why.
Your mouth is home to millions of naturally occurring bacteria. Now that mouth piercings are becoming more popular, dentists and other health care providers are seeing infections in people who get them. When you develop an infection like this, your mouth and tongue can swell so much that you literally can’t breathe. Infected mouth piercings can even lead to serious infections like hepatitis or endocarditis.
It’s also easy for mouth jewelry to break, causing choking or chipped and broken teeth, especially if you bite down on a fragment that gets into your mouth. Even when jewelry stays intact, it might repeatedly tap against your teeth, damaging the hard protective coating (enamel) that protects you from tooth decay.
7. Do sports and energy drinks cause dental problems?
These drinks can elevate your cavity risks in two ways. First, many brands have lots of added sugar. Some may claim they’re sweetened with “healthy” or “natural” ingredients like agave nectar, evaporated cane juice or fruit concentrate — but when it comes to your teeth, sugar is sugar, no matter what it’s called. Here’s how to read labels so you’ll know the sugar content of what you’re drinking.
Second, energy and sports drinks tend to have high levels of dietary acid that attacks tooth enamel, setting the stage for decay. (This graphic shows you which drinks are hardest on your teeth, based on acid content.) At the end of the day, the healthiest drink for your teeth is water, preferably with added fluoride. If you like bubbles now and then, sparkling water can be a good choice too.
8. What are dental sealants and how do they work?
Dental sealants are a special plastic coating your dentist applies to your teeth. They are usually placed on the chewing surfaces of back teeth (molars) or used to cover pits and grooves in other teeth where cavities might form. The goal is to stop decay before it even starts.
Sealing a tooth is fast and easy. As long as the sealant holds together, that tooth will be protected from decay. Sealants are made to stand up to normal chewing, but sometimes they need to be reapplied.
Keep in mind, though, that just because you have sealants doesn’t mean you don’t have to brush and floss! They’re just an extra level of protection to help keep cavities away.
9. When should I wear a mouthguard?
If you play a sport or are active in things like skateboarding or snowboarding, it’s a good idea to wear a mouthguard. It might feel a little strange at first, but mouthguards are the best thing you can do to protect your teeth from getting broken or knocked out.
A well-fitted mouthguard absorbs blows that can injure your teeth, lips and cheeks (and sometimes even break jawbones). Your dentist can help you figure out which kind of mouthguard is right for you and the kind of sport or activity you’re involved in.
Learn more about dental health issues
Why having an eating disorder can be hard on your teeth
Safe, effective ways to whiten your teeth
Does mouthwash help fight cavities?
What is “meth mouth”?