Fast facts

  • Bruxism, or tooth grinding, is when a person unintentionally grinds or clenches their teeth, usually when sleeping.
  • The exact cause of bruxism is unknown, but there are several factors that can trigger it, including stress and sleep problems.
  • Other than the sound of teeth grinding, signs and symptoms of bruxism can include pain and stiffness in the head, face, jaws and teeth.
  • Treatment for bruxism often includes mouthguards, and techniques to reduce stress and improve sleep.

Stress

The word ‘stress’ can have a variety of meanings, but generally describes the physical and mental responses of the body to a demand placed upon it. Often used to describe conditions where the demand is high or unable to be resolved and creates anxiety and tension.

What is bruxism?

Bruxism is the unintentional clenching or grinding of the teeth. While it mostly occurs during sleep, it can affect some people while they are awake.

Bruxism can occur at any age. Although it is commonly found in children, they usually outgrow the condition.

Causes

While the exact causes of bruxism have not been identified, factors that are thought to contribute to its development may include:

  • Stress and anxiety;
  • Sleep disorders, such as obstructive sleep apnoea;
  • Problems with teeth alignment;
  • Heartburn;
  • Some medications, including antidepressants (such as fluoxetine and sertraline) and certain antipsychotics (such as chlorpromazine), which are used to treat mental health conditions;
  • Medical conditions, such as Parkinson's disease and Huntington's disease, and;
  • Lifestyle factors such as smoking, use of stimulant drugs such as amphetamines, ecstasy and cocaine, or excessive alcohol or caffeine consumption.

Antidepressants

Medication used to treat depression and other mood disorders.

Huntington's disease

A hereditary condition caused by a faulty gene that leads to increased levels of a defective huntingtin protein within nerve cells. This protein causes changes in the central part of the brain, which affects muscle coordination, impairs cognition and causes changes in behaviour.

Stress

The word ‘stress’ can have a variety of meanings, but generally describes the physical and mental responses of the body to a demand placed upon it. Often used to describe conditions where the demand is high or unable to be resolved and creates anxiety and tension.

Signs and symptoms

Bruxism that occurs during sleep can be detected from the sounds made by the grinding of the teeth. Other signs and symptoms can include:

  • Headache;
  • Pain around the face, jaw or ear;
  • Muscle tightness and stiffness around the temples or jaws, which is most noticeable after sleep;
  • Difficulty opening the mouth;
  • Aching teeth that may be more sensitive to hot and cold temperatures;
  • Tightness and stiffness of the shoulder muscles;
  • Worn or damaged teeth, and;
  • The tongue or the insides of the cheeks are sore or show tooth marks.
Signs of bruxism can include muscle tightness and stiffness in the jaw area.Bruxism can result in sore muscles around the jaw area.  

Methods for diagnosis

Bruxism can sometimes be diagnosed during regular dental check-ups, when your dentist notices:

  • Signs of wear and damage on the teeth surface;
  • Teeth misalignment, or;
  • Tenderness in the jaw muscles.

If bruxism is diagnosed, X-rays may be taken to evaluate the damage to the teeth or jawbones.

In some cases, your dentist may request a doctor's examination to rule out other potential causes of the symptoms, such as ear infections, heartburn or obstructive sleep apnoea.

Bruxism may also be detected during a sleep study, which may be suggested, particularly if there are symptoms of other sleep disorders, such as insomnia.

Infections

Entry into the body of microorganisms that can reproduce and cause disease.

X-rays

A scan that uses ionising radiation beams to create an image of the body’s internal structures.

Types of treatment

In many cases, bruxism is mild and no treatment is required.

If symptoms are bothersome or cause tooth damage, bruxism can be managed by a range of means:

Mouthguards and bite splints

Wearing mouthguards and bite splints (also known as night guards or occlusal splints) while sleeping will not stop bruxism from occurring, but they can reduce the extent of teeth damage and the noise made by the teeth grinding.

A mouthguard for bruxism is similar to a mouthguard used for sports. It is generally made from soft plastic or rubber. A bite splint is made from harder plastic. Your dentist can advise you on the option most suitable to your condition.  

Correcting dental problems

If dental problems, such as misaligned teeth or fillings, are contributing to bruxism, a dentist can provide advice on getting appropriate dental treatments.

Dealing with stress

Since stress and anxiety are strongly associated with bruxism, managing stress levels and achieving relaxation may help to reduce the teeth grinding.

This can be achieved by:

  • Regular physical activity;
  • Relaxation techniques, such as hypnosis, meditation or yoga, and;
  • Psychological therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, which may help to treat any underlying psychological issues.

Behavioural change

Consciously changing the position of the mouth and jaw may help to reduce bruxism. Your dentist can advise on the correct jaw positions to aim for.  

Changing medications

If a medication is causing bruxism, your doctor may be able to recommend an alternative. It is important that you do not stop taking a medication without discussing it with your doctor first, as it may result in worsening of the treated condition or cause significant side effects.

Psychological

Relating to, arising in, or affecting the mind.

Stress

The word ‘stress’ can have a variety of meanings, but generally describes the physical and mental responses of the body to a demand placed upon it. Often used to describe conditions where the demand is high or unable to be resolved and creates anxiety and tension.

Potential complications

Complications due to ongoing bruxism can include:

  • Significant dental damage that can lead to cracked teeth or complete loss of teeth;
  • Tension headaches, and;
  • Damage to the joint where the jaw is connected to the skull (the temporomandibular joint). This can lead to pain and reduction in movement of the jaw. 

Prognosis

Many cases of bruxism are not serious, although severe cases can lead to ongoing troublesome symptoms and dental damage.

Prevention

Regular dental examinations can detect bruxism. If you have symptoms of bruxism, see a dentist to prevent dental damage.

Other steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of developing bruxism, or the severity of existing bruxism, include:

  • Managing stress levels;
  • Relaxation techniques;
  • Not smoking;
  • Keeping alcohol consumption to a minimum in the evening;
  • Limiting caffeinated tea and coffee in the evening, and;
  • Having good sleep habits. 

Stress

The word ‘stress’ can have a variety of meanings, but generally describes the physical and mental responses of the body to a demand placed upon it. Often used to describe conditions where the demand is high or unable to be resolved and creates anxiety and tension.