Fast facts

  • Teeth grinding, or bruxism, is when a person unintentionally grinds or clenches their teeth, usually when sleeping.
  • The exact cause of teeth grinding 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 teeth grinding 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 teeth grinding?

Teeth grinding, or 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.

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

Causes

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

  • Stress and anxiety;
  • Sleep disorders, such as obstructive sleep apnea;
  • 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.

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 behavior.

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

Teeth grinding, or 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.Teeth grinding can result in sore muscles around the jaw area.  

Methods for diagnosis

Teeth grinding, or 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 apnea.

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

Types of treatment

In many cases, teeth grinding is mild and no treatment is required.

If symptoms are bothersome or cause tooth damage, teeth grinding 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 teeth grinding from occurring, but they can reduce the extent of teeth damage and the noise made by the teeth grinding.

A mouthguard for teeth grinding 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 teeth grinding, a dentist can provide advice on getting appropriate dental treatments.

Dealing with stress

Since stress and anxiety are strongly associated with teeth grinding, 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 behavioral therapy, which may help to treat any underlying psychological issues.

Behavioral change

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

Changing medications

If a medication is causing teeth grinding, your doctor may be able to recommend an alternative. It is important that you don't 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 teeth grinding 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 teeth grinding are not serious, although severe cases can lead to ongoing troublesome symptoms and dental damage.

Prevention

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

Other steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of developing teeth grinding, 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.