Teeth Grinding: Causes And Natural Solutions

© 2015 by Kate Parker, RDH, BS-DH, RF

teeth grindingOne of the main complications associated with teeth grinding is pain of the teeth, jaw, ears, and temples

Chronic teeth grinding, called bruxism, effects up to 30% of the population. While not often thought of as a serious condition, it can become one. If allowed to continue unabated, chronic teeth grinding can lead to serious complications in both the mouth and body of the person affected.

Complications can range from completely wearing down the teeth, and fracturing of teeth, to chronic migraines, TMJ issues, and torticollis (chronically locked/tilted neck.) Torticollis will eventually cause systemic spinal pain, and if left untreated, actual degeneration of the spine.

Teeth grinding is a great example of how a seemingly "small" problem, if left untreated, can have serious results throughout the body. Therefore, finding a natural way to reduce the occurrence of bruxism is in the interest of all who suffer from this condition.

What Is Bruxism?

Bruxism is the habitual, and usually involuntary, clenching and/or grinding of the teeth. This usually occurs at night when the person is sleeping. Because of this, the person might not even know that they brux (grind their teeth) until symptoms occur. Usually it will be obvious to a dental professional if you are teeth grinding, and they will ask if you are aware that you do this. About 70% of the time, the person already knows, while 30% say they had no idea.

Most dental hygienists and dentists conduct a full head and neck exam at each appointment to check for teeth grinding and the general health of this region. Commonly they will first look at the muscles in the face. They will then palpate the TMJ (temporomandibular joint), or the spot where your jaw attaches, while you open and close a few times. Then they will palpate the muscles of mastication and lymph nodes in the head and neck. 

The oral health professional is looking for many things during this exam, including chronic teeth grinding, or bruxism. Teeth grinding can be mild, moderate, or severe. The common signs that you may be teeth grinding are listed below.

Signs You May Be Teeth Grinding

teeth grindingOverdeveloped masseter muscles will make the angle of the jaw line appear wide and square
  • Overdeveloped (hypertrophied) muscles of mastication, usually the masseter muscles, sometimes also the temporalis muscles. These overdeveloped muscles will make the angle of the jaw line appear wide and square
  • Tired or sore jaw muscles, especially when speaking or chewing
  • Jaw and TMJ pain, which can manifest in front of or behind the ear
  • Clicking of the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) when the jaw opens or closes, either on one side or both
  • Trismus, or the inability to fully open the jaw/mouth, also called lockjaw
  • Chronic headaches and migraines caused by muscle pain, usually the masseter muscles, which generally presents in the temple region
  • A grinding or tapping noise heard while sleeping, usually detected by a partner
  • Torticollis, or the chronic tilting of the head to one side due to muscle spasms
  • Pain, inflammation, and degeneration of the spine associated with chronically untreated torticollis

Dental clues that you are teeth grinding:

teeth grindingAbfraction, attrition, fracturing, and chipping of teeth can occur with chronic teeth grinding (bruxism)
  • Excessive tooth wear (attrition), or the grinding down of the occlusal (biting) surfaces of the teeth
  • Hypersensitive teeth due to the grinding away of the protective insulating layers of the teeth (enamel and dentin)
  • Tooth mobility due to the constant back-and-forth motion of grinding under pressure
  • Abfraction of the teeth, forming notches at the gingival margins (gum line) due to extreme forces and pressure
  • Cracked or chipped teeth with no obvious explanation
  • Sore teeth when biting or chewing due to inflammation of the periodontal ligament (connective tissue fibers that anchor the teeth to the jaw bone)
  • Lip biting, cheek biting, or chronic cheek biting noted by the development of linea alba (a thin white hyperkeratinized line on the cheek, something like a callous)

What Causes Teeth Grinding?

teeth grindingThe jaw functions with a delicate balance of nerves and muscles working together. If a nerve gets pinched it can cause a muscle to misfire and pull the jaw out of alignment
    In essence, most chronic teeth grinding is caused by the repetitive, unconscious contraction of the masseter and temporalis muscles. While there is no consensus as to why this happens, certain factors can contribute to the likelihood of teeth grinding:
  • Sleep apnea
  • Malocclusion, or an abnormal alignment of the teeth. This can include crooked and missing teeth, or jaw misalignment
  • Side effect of some medications, such as antidepressants and antipsychotics
  • Side effect of some street drugs, such as methamphetamine, cocaine, and ecstasy
  • Side effect of drugs that stimulate the nervous system, like caffeine
  • Excessive or ongoing stress
  • Complication caused by Parkinson's or Huntington's diseases
  • Feedback loop of TMJ/TMD problems causing teeth grinding, and teeth grinding causing TMJ/TMD problems
  • Pinched cranial nerves or spinal accessory nerves

The jaw functions with a delicate balance of nerves and muscles working very precisely together. If one of those nerves gets pinched it can cause a muscle to misfire and pull the jaw out of alignment. Some muscles that connect to the jaw have nerve supplies that actually come out of at the base of the skull and occiput (back of the head.) A subluxation of the occiput and the atlas (the top bone in your spine) can cause the nerves to get pinched. So if your teeth grinding comes on after a trauma, car wreck, or even just a bad sleep, a chiropractor should be your first stop before the dentist.

Natural Treatment Methods For Bruxism

teeth grindingThere is a wide range of natural treatments to help resolve teeth grinding. Find the one that's right for you

Teeth grinding, or bruxism, can range from mild, to moderate, to severe. Based on the severity of your symptoms, different treatment methods will be appropriate. For mild to moderate symptoms, less extreme measures can be taken. Obviously with more severe cases of teeth grinding, you will need to take stronger measures to help resolve the issues before they cause permanent damage. If you're not sure how severe your case is, start with the simpler treatment methods and progressively become more aggressive in your treatments until something works. 

  • De-stress before sleeping (warm bath; yoga; meditation; deep breathing exercises; massage; mild exercise, etc.)
  • Apply a warm, moist towel to the jaw area before sleeping to relax the muscles
  • Do not chew gum; this strengthens the muscles responsible for teeth grinding
  • Do not habitually chew on anything like straws, pencils, or pens during the day
  • Do not clench your jaw muscles during the day; consciously relax your jaw muscles. When the jaw is relaxed, your teeth will be slightly apart and your tongue will rest on the palate
  • Purchase a dental night guard or bite splint. Over-the-counter models are less expensive but also don't work as effectively as custom-made guards from your dental office. However, many people don't like them. If you haven't tried one, try it. If you've tried one and don't like it, use these other methods to help resolve your bruxism
  • Avoid an inflammatory diet (animal products like meat and dairy; sugar; gluten.) If you have any known food allergies or sensitivities, strictly avoid those foods
  • Consume enough non-animal sources of calcium and magnesium to ensure muscles can relax. A lack of these minerals can cause muscle contraction and muscle spasms
  • Avoid mold, chemical, and other environmental sources of inflammation
  • Avoid using caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, and street drugs (meth, cocaine, ecstasy) before sleeping
  • If you have TMJ/TMD issues, resolve these issues by going to a chiropractor or TMJ specialist
  • If your teeth grinding began after an accident or after a bad/uncomfortable sleep, consult a chiropractor to resolve subluxations and free pinched nerves
  • If jaw pain makes your neck lock up, it could be a sign of torticollis. See a chiropractor to resolve this issue before it gets worse. Unresolved torticollis can cause spinal pain, and eventually can cause actual degeneration of the spine

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