How to Tell if You’re Grinding Your Teeth

How to Tell if You’re Grinding Your Teeth
Photo: GBALLGIGGSPHOTO, Shutterstock

Back in September, Dr. Tammy Chen, a Manhattan dentist, wrote an article for the New York Times detailing how, since her practice reopened in June, she has seen an increase in the number of patients coming in with fractured teeth. Given that we’re all living amid a global pandemic and an especially contentious election, this makes sense. These events cause stress, and stress can cause some people to grind and/or clench their teeth, which can then result in a cracked tooth (or in some cases, multiple teeth).

But many people don’t even realise that they’re grinding and/or clenching, so it comes as a surprise when their dentist says that it’s probably what’s behind a tooth fracture. If you suspect you may be grinding or clenching your teeth, here are a few ways to tell — ideally before you crack something.

Why do people grind/clench their teeth?

Like Chen, Dr. Todd Bertman, a practicing dentist for nearly 20 years and the owner of Advanced Dental Arts, has seen a recent increase in bruxism — the technical term for grinding, gnashing and/or clenching your teeth. “Grinding and clenching teeth has been more prevalent than ever before,” he tells Lifehacker. “This has always been an issue that dentists have been addressing, because they can clinically see it. Typically, patients don’t even know they are doing it, until it’s too late and teeth break, chip or sometimes move.”

According to Bertman, bruxism is considered a neurological response of the body. “It’s a combination of physical, psychological, and genetic factors, mostly manifested during sleep, but also at times awake during moments of concentration,” he explains. We know that times of high stress can increase both the frequency and magnitude of bruxism, with clenching and grinding putting hundreds of pounds of pressure on your teeth. In addition, Bertman says that some medications, like Adderall, can contribute to bruxism, as can sleep issues like sleep apnea.

What are the signs and symptoms of bruxism?

Though it’s usually your dentist who’ll first spot the signs of grinding and/or clenching during an exam, there are a few things to keep an eye on yourself. According to Bertman, these include:

  • Wear on teeth
  • Excessive marks on teeth
  • Broken teeth
  • Sensitivity to cold
  • Mal-aligned teeth
  • Hypertrophic jaw muscles (square jaw)
  • Waking up with jaw pain
  • Waking up with headaches, especially in the sides of the head (temporal muscles) and/or forehead (frontalis muscle). (Bertman points out that this symptom is usually a result of the act of clenching rather than grinding.)

It’s also important to be aware of what you’re doing with your teeth, as Chen points out in her article:

Are your teeth currently touching? Even as you read this article? If so, that’s a sure sign that you’re doing some damage — your teeth shouldn’t actually touch throughout the day at all unless you’re actively eating and chewing your food. Instead, your jaw should be relaxed, with a bit of space between the teeth when the lips are closed. Be mindful, and try to stop yourself from grinding when you catch yourself doing it.

What are some treatment options for grinding/clenching?

The most common treatment for bruxism is a night guard, which can“provide a physical barrier, absorbing and dispersing pressure,” Chen explains. While there are over-the-counter night guards available at your drugstore, Bertman doesn’t recommend using them because they are too soft and can actually contribute to your grinding and/or clenching habit, causing more damage in the long run. Instead, he recommends getting a custom-made night guard from your dentist.

Botox treatments are another option; Bertman says botox has the ability to slow down and limit a muscle’s full range, and is most effective when used along with a night guard.

Ideally, getting treatment for your grinding and/or clenching would prevent your teeth from cracking, but it is still possible to fracture a tooth while wearing a night guard. “Bruxism is a can be very destructive to your lifestyle,” Bertman explains. “If you feel that this may be an issue for you, the best approach would be to have a discussion with your dentist.”

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