Don’t Bite Me! Teeth Grinding: Why You Do It and How to Stop

While occasional teeth grinding may seem benign, those who suffer from regular bouts risk damaging their teeth and jaw, among other health complications.

teeth grinding

When we’re under strain or feeling worried, our muscles tense and our heart and breathing rates increase. Many of us also tend to clench our jaws and grind our teeth.

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Ever awakened with a splitting headache or an ache in your jaw? Has your bedmate accused you of making squeaking or crunching noises while you sleep? You could be one of millions who suffer from sleep bruxism (a.k.a. nighttime teeth grinding), one of the most common sleep disorders.

While occasional teeth grinding isn’t a big deal, untreated chronic bruxism can cause more serious health issues including cracked and broken teeth, arthritis, and temporomandibular joint disorders (TMD). (To learn more about the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) and related disorders, read our post 7 Essential TMJ Exercises to Relieve Jaw Pain.)

What Is Bruxism?

Bruxism is an unconscious neuromuscular movement that involves teeth grinding and clenching. Most commonly experienced during sleep, bruxism can also occur during the day, especially if a person is overly stressed or anxious. According to a study in the journal Chest, “sleep bruxism is common in the general population and represents the third most frequent parasomnia [a.k.a. sleep disorder involving abnormal behaviors, emotions or perceptions].”

Since most of us are oblivious to our nighttime teeth gnashing, it’s hard to calculate an exact percentage for those who suffer from this affliction. However, authors of a study published in the journal Sleep Medicine Reviews, state that “the majority of the population will at some time during their lifetime grind or clench their teeth.”

What Does it Mean When You Grind Your Teeth?

You’re probably stressed. While there’s no single definitive cause of bruxism, Dr. Richard Price, DMD and spokesperson for the American Dental Association, says “stress is number one on the list.” Following close behind, he says, are anxiety, frustration, [and] anger. When we’re under strain or feeling worried, our muscles tense and our heart and breathing rates increase. Many of us also tend to clench our jaws and grind our teeth.

Sleep disorders, most notably sleep apnea, are also causal factors. Other teeth grinding triggers include loud snoring, certain medications (especially anti-anxiety drugs), heavy use of alcohol and illegal substances, smoking, and drinking caffeine. Underlying psychological issues such as depression and eating disorders can also be to blame. While many experts have blamed abnormal bites (i.e. when your teeth don’t meet in a natural place) for bruxism, this theory has been disputed lately.

Bruxism isn’t always a regular occurrence. It can be episodic, says Dr. Price. Perhaps you’re going through temporary stress such as a divorce or job loss. “It could be something that could just play itself out as opposed to being chronic,” he explains. This means that for some, teeth grinding is a short-lived inconvenience.’


One of the more recent bruxism treatments is Botox. A study in the Journal of Oral Rehabilitation found that Botox minimized symptoms and reduced the intensity of teeth grinding. Dr. Price’s opinion on the wrinkle-eraser: “If it works, give it a whirl, but only with someone who knows what they’re doing. I’d probably see an oral surgeon,” he says. To learn more about Botox, read our post What is Botox?

What Are the Effects of Teeth Grinding?

In addition to causing chronic headaches, especially in the morning, regular teeth grinding can result in pain and arthritis. “You might wake up with a tightness through your teeth, your jaw may feel sore, there might be chipped teeth, maybe headaches, maybe tooth sensitivity,” Dr. Price says. “There are a lot of ramifications of clenching and grinding teeth, which can result in temporomandibular joint problems.”

Other symptoms of teeth grinding include:

  • Fractured teeth
  • Loosened teeth
  • Tooth loss
  • Sensitive teeth
  • Clicking or popping jaw
  • Earache
  • Lockjaw
  • Ringing in the ears (a.k.a. tinnitus)
  • Worn teeth that look like stumps
  • A need for dental interventions such as bridges, crowns, root canals, dentures, and implants
  • Altered facial appearance
  • Temporomandibular joint disorders

How Is Bruxism Diagnosed?

A dentist is the best person to diagnose bruxism. Comparing your medical history, symptoms, and physical exam can lead her to determine whether you’re a grinder. “When teeth grind together, it will cause a wear pattern,” says Dr. Price. That’s often an easy thing for a dentist to notice, as are chipped, loosened or fractured teeth. To take an even closer look, some dentists take a mold of the teeth to study the wear patterns in more detail.


“Teeth clenching is more common during the day, which can lead to tooth grinding at night,” says Dr. Richard Price, DMD. The reason: possibly because we fall into deep, REM sleep and our muscles relax, leading our jaws to slide instead of clench, he explains.

Teeth Grinding Treatment

Each case of bruxism is unique, so it’s important to determine an individual treatment plan with your dentist. Once you’ve been diagnosed with bruxism and have discovered the triggers behind your teeth grinding, the dentist will choose between three types of treatments: dental (i.e. a mouth guard), pharmacological (i.e. medications to treat anxiety or muscle relaxants to relieve tension), and psychobehavioral (e.g. meditation, psychiatric therapy, and hypnotherapy).

“If you’re aware of clenching and grinding, there are things you can do in terms of meditation and biofeedback, to relax yourself,” says Dr. Price. If you’re stressed, relax!  Have a massage, practice meditation, or exercise regularly to help reduce tension and worry. Hypnotherapy has also been used to help treat bruxism. “If you relax, you can’t be uptight,” says Dr. Price. “They don’t go together.”

Wearing a soft occlusal splint (a.k.a. mouth or bite guard) is one of the most popular and effective treatments for teeth grinding, especially when you’re stressed, found Indian researchers. In a study of 20 people who suffered from bruxism, they found that 70 percent experienced decreased cortisol levels (a marker of stress) after wearing a splint.

If your bruxism is caused by a sleep disorder, seek help from a medical professional. Also, read our post, Think Natural: Cures for Insomnia for tips to help you get to sleep and stay there.

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Shandley McMurray

Shandley McMurray has written several of Belvoir’s special health reports on topics including stress & anxiety, coronary artery disease, healthy eyes and pain management. Shandley also has authored numerous articles … Read More

View all posts by Shandley McMurray

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