Why are we all grinding our teeth into oblivion? Get the facts on bruxism.
A couple of months ago, I finished eating dinner to discover that one of my front teeth had suddenly acquired a tiny jagged edge. I hadn’t been eating anything particularly hard or chewy, and naturally, I was a bit freaked out. Was this just the start? Were all my teeth going to crumble right out of my head? One panicked visit to the dentist’s later, I was being fitted for a night guard. Apparently, I had been grinding my teeth in my sleep – so much so that parts of the enamel had been weakened and started chipping. The stuff of actual nightmares.
Since then, I’ve noticed that several women I know are also wearing night guards. But why are we all grinding our teeth into oblivion? I spoke to Dr Paul O’Dwyer, group clinical advisor at Dental Care Ireland, to find out what exactly is going on here.
“Teeth clenching or teeth grinding occurs throughout our lives,” he says. “For young children, teeth grinding is part of normal development. Baby teeth have a limited life span, and to hasten their departure to make way for permanent teeth, children grind their teeth together.”
Unlike your baby teeth, grinding your teeth can follow you into adulthood. According to Dr O’Dwyer, many patients with undiagnosed bruxism will report experiencing soreness in the jaw or the muscles around the mouth in the morning – a sure sign that you’ve been grinding away overnight. Your dentist will also be able to see signs of it in your fillings, or in the teeth themselves. If you’re like me, tiny parts of them will just chip off! How glamorous.
There are lots of different reasons why people grind their teeth. “Some cases of bruxism are just due to anatomical features. The relationship of our top jaw to our bottom might be slightly out of kilter, having a direct effect on how our teeth meet,” says Dr O’Dwyer. “A way around that would be orthodontic braces.” Physical and emotional stress are also at play here – from clenching your teeth while you’re exercising or concentrating on something, to grinding when you’re feeling under pressure or worried. “It’s my opinion that since the financial downturn, we dentists would see a lot more bruxism happening in what would previously have been stable patients,” recalls Dr O’Dwyer.
Bruxism isn’t something that happens overnight, but over several months or even years. It can be latent, only showing up in areas of your life that are more stressful than others, for example the Leaving Cert, job interviews, a promotion in work… in fact, women getting married can sometimes grind their teeth.
If you suspect that you’re doing it, Dr O’Dwyer says your best bet is to go to your dentist for a checkup. “Your dentist will have been examining your teeth over years, they’ll have very good records that will show any telltale signs and symptoms. Regular attendance is great because it helps to prevent so much.” Many dentists recommend the wearing of a splint, often called a mouth guard or night guard, which prevents you from grinding your teeth in your sleep. They might also tell you to do special jaw exercises, or treat it psychologically with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
What I’ve been wondering is: Once we start grinding our teeth, do we ever stop? Am I stuck wearing an extremely unsexy night guard to bed forever? Dr O’Dwyer says… maybe. “From general practice I would say people tend to go through episodes of bruxism,” he tells me. “Dental health is not a fixed thing. As we get older there are changes to our facial anatomy – our jawlines tend to recede, and our teeth move around a bit, which affects how we close our teeth together. This all sets us up for potential episodes of bruxism.” Regular checkups are the best way to ensure that all is as it should be. I know I won’t be risking any more chipped teeth, so as rotten as it is, my night guard is my best friend for now.