Risks of Nighttime Teeth Grinding

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Are you wondering or worried about the potential risks of nighttime teeth grinding? If the answer is yes, then this article was written for you.

Nighttime teeth grinding, also known as nighttime bruxism, is the involuntary clenching and grinding back and forth of the teeth while sleeping. Awake bruxism is bad enough – night bruxism is worse, as you cannot catch yourself doing it.

Many people grind their teeth at night without being consciously aware of it and only begin to catch on over time because they are consistently waking up with pressure headaches, soreness, pain and discomfort in the entire jaw area, and perhaps even tooth damage.

Sleep bruxism is tricky to get to the root of, as it is often caused by an overlap of different factors. These may include genetic factors, mental health factors, sleep-related disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea, and other, unrelated disorders including gastroesophageal reflux disorder and epilepsy. Other factors that may contribute to sleep bruxism include smoking, taking illicit drugs, and suffering from anxiety or stress.

Getting to the bottom of what causes nighttime teeth grinding is not always possible, but at least the condition is imminently treatable. And treating nighttime bruxism, teeth grinding, is incredibly important as the condition, if left untreated, can escalate far beyond mere facial pain and morning headaches. 

Keep reading to learn more about why nighttime teeth grinding is bad, and how to prevent sleep bruxism.

Why nighttime teeth grinding is harmful

How harmful is nighttime teeth grinding, really, and is it always necessary to treat it?

The answer is simple. Grinding your teeth in your sleep now and then is no biggie, but people who consistently grind their teeth at night are bound to develop a number of oral and general health problems. These are the most common problems you can expect to develop if you are grinding your teeth at night and not doing anything about it.

Worn and fractured teeth

Nighttime teeth grinding will inevitably lead to a number of teeth problems. The most common one of these is loose worn tooth enamel as a result of all of the grinding and pressure. In other words, if you are grinding your teeth in your sleep, you are going to wear down the protective enamel layer on your teeth much quicker than you would otherwise. As a result, your teeth will become much more vulnerable to infections, and even to sustaining damage such as fracturing and chipping.

Although it is not super common, it is also not unheard of that people who grind their teeth at night manage to crack or damage their teeth through the sheer force of grinding.

Tooth pain and sensitivity

Wearing down your enamel does more than simply leave your teeth vulnerable to infection, damage and decay – it also leaves them much more sensitive to pain and discomfort.

If your enamel is thin, you are likely to become very sensitive to spicy foods, foods and drinks that are either very hot or very cold, and even to sucking in cool air between your teeth. This level of tooth sensitivity can be very frustrating to live with, and enamel rebuilding toothpaste can only do so much to keep up with the rate of enamel erosion caused by nighttime teeth grinding.

Ear pain

The mouth, nose and ears are all connected, and one seemingly unlikely risk factor of nighttime teeth grinding is developing pain in your ears. Quite often, ear pain and inflammation caused by teeth grinding is misdiagnosed as an ear infection. 

Pressure headaches

Pressure headaches is one of the most common risks of nighttime bruxism. 

Pressure headaches are exactly what they sound like, namely headaches caused by excessive amounts of pressure, in this case stemming from your jaw area and reading outward and upwards. It is also not uncommon for people suffering from sleep bruxism to complain of facial pain that isn’t simply localised to the jaw or the skull.

Sore jaw muscles, jaw pain and potential damage of the jaw joints

The jaw is obviously where all of the action is taking place if you are grinding your teeth in your sleep. As a result, the jaw becomes the epicentre of the pain stemming from nighttime teeth grinding.

If you have only recently started grinding your teeth at night, you may start noticing that your jaw muscles feel tired and sore when you wake up in the morning. After a while, the soreness and the tight jaw muscles become chronic. You may even develop temporomandibular joint disorder or other kinds of jaw disorders that may require surgery in order to fix them.

Sleep problems

Sleep apnea and other sleep disorders are known to contribute to nighttime teeth grinding.

The good news about this is that seeking treatment for your sleep disorder may equate to getting treatment for your teeth grinding.

Treating bruxism

Although sleep bruxism tends to be caused by a multitude of different facets that coalesce, treatment is always available. Which treatment/s you will have to deploy to resolve your nighttime teeth grinding depends on what the underlying cause is. 

To get you started down the right track, here are the most effective treatment options for sleep bruxism.

Straighten your teeth

In some cases, nighttime teeth grinding is caused by misaligned or crowded teeth. If this is the case for you, getting your teeth straightened with either traditional braces or a series of clear aligners, such as Invisalign or Smile Direct Club, could very well be the answer.

And as an extra bonus, you will end up with a much more healthy and beautiful smile.

Wear a night mouth guard 

A custom mouthguard for nighttime use can prove incredibly helpful in stopping involuntary teeth grinding. 

A night guard is made from a sturdy but flexible plastic material that stops you from closing your jaw completely. 

Stress and anxiety management

Stress management is one of the most important skills you can ever learn, for so many reasons – and ditching nighttime teeth grinding is one of them. If you are dealing with high levels of stress and anxiety, these can greatly contribute to you clenching and grinding your teeth at night.

Some of the tools and techniques you can deploy to manage stress include meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, spending more time in nature and exercising, and spending less time in front of a screen, especially right before going to sleep. 

Change medications

Certain medications, particularly some psychiatric medications and anxiety medications, can contribute to or even be the leading cause behind sleep bruxism in some cases.

If you have had sleep bruxism diagnosed, it could be worth discussing with your psychiatrist or general health practitioner whether switching to a different medication – one that doesn’t have sleep teeth grinding as a potential side effect – could be worth trying.

Cut out recreational drugs

Some drugs can cause involuntary clenching and locked jaw, so if you take any recreational drugs on a regular basis, they could be at least partially to blame for nighttime teeth grinding.

It might surprise you how much of a difference cutting out or cutting down your intake of illicit drugs might help you overcome nighttime bruxism.

Botox injections

Yes, indeed. Botox injections can do more for you than simply make you look younger.

Botox has a muscle-relaxing effect, so if injected into the jaw muscles, botox may help you stop grinding your teeth at night.

Frequently asked questions about nighttime teeth grinding

What problems can teeth grinding cause?

Teeth grinding, whether you do it in your sleep or awake, can cause a great many problems. Some of the most common risks factors of untreated teeth grinding include jaw pain and soreness, facial pain, pressure headaches, the development of jaw joint disorders, cracked and broken teeth and dental work, tooth pain and sensitivity, ear pain and sleep problems.

As you can see, the list of both dental and general health problems that can arise from leaving teeth grinding untreated is long. It is always best to seek treatment for your teeth grinding sooner rather than later.

What causes a person to grind their teeth when sleeping?

It is usually impossible to point to one clear and specific cause that leads someone to grind their teeth at night. Often, nighttime teeth grinding is caused by a number of different factors that overlap – genetics, sleep disorders, lifestyle habits, medications and mental health are just some of the most common factors that can contribute or lead a person to grind their teeth at night.

Bottom line

It can be extremely difficult to correctly identify and then illuminate the root cause of sleep bruxism. Often, the teeth grinding is caused by a combination of factors, including psychological factors, genetic factors, and sometimes medications, such as certain antidepressants. In other words, what causes sleep bruxism is often a big cocktail of things that can be hard to identify and deal with individually. 

But more important than what causes nighttime teeth grinding is, of course, what it is doing to your oral and overall health. If you grind your teeth at night, you are likely to experience a number of negative consequences, including jaw pain, face pain and tension headaches. 

In the short term bruxism, teeth grinding, is merely unpleasant. But if it is allowed to go on, the risk factors start to become much more serious and problematic. All of that teeth clenching can eventually lead to more or less permanent headaches, chipped and cracked teeth, worn-down jaw muscles and jaw joint disorders that require surgery.

Luckily, there are many different treatment options that, especially when combined, can help you to stop teeth grinding. Depending on what is causing your particular case of sleep bruxism, a simple change in medication and a night guard may be all you need.

Dr Febin Mary George - Editor

With more than 10 years as a dental surgeon, Dr Febin Mary George is passionate about educating consumers around the world to help look after their teeth.

She completed her Bachelor of Surgery at the Century Institute of Dental Science and Research Centre in 2010.

Alongside editing the International Journal of Dental Clinics she has also written for major publications including Thrive Global.