Teeth Grinding (Bruxism)

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is teeth grinding (bruxism)?

Bruxism, or teeth grinding, is often an unconscious action of literally grinding your teeth or clenching your jaw so your upper and lower teeth press tightly against each other. We all clench our jaws or grind our teeth together sometimes, usually if we’re stressed or angry. But regular or frequent teeth grinding puts pressure on the teeth and surrounding muscles. Aside from causing problems with your teeth (sensitivity, broken teeth or crowns), teeth grinding can also cause headaches and problems with the jaw joint.

Although it is not possible to know exact numbers, experts estimate that 15 to 40% of children and 8 to 10% of adults experience sleep bruxism (teeth grinding when sleeping). Many people do not know they grind their teeth at night unless a partner tells them. They may only find out when they visit the dentist or if they seek help for recurring headaches or jaw pain.

Although teeth grinding is not a medical emergency, if left untreated, it could result in more damage to the teeth, worsening and more frequent headaches, and jaw joint pain that could make it difficult to open your mouth.

What are the symptoms of teeth grinding (bruxism)?

It’s not uncommon for someone to wake a partner or a parent to wake a child because they heard the sound of grinding teeth. But if you do grind your teeth and no one has heard it, there are some symptoms that you may notice.

Common symptoms of teeth grinding (bruxism)

The most common symptoms of teeth grinding are:

  • Broken or chipped teeth
  • Clicking or popping sound when you open or close your mouth
  • Earache
  • Increased tooth sensitivity to either heat or cold
  • Injury inside your cheek
  • Locked jaw that won’t open or close
  • Sore jaw or face
  • Tight jaw muscles
  • Tooth pain

If you have not noticed any of these symptoms, your dental hygienist or dentist may see that your teeth have developed flat areas on the surface, from where they rubbed against others. Cracks and other signs of stress may also be visible on the teeth.

Teeth grinding is not a serious or life-threatening situation, but if left untreated, it could cause continual and worsening headaches, dental problems, and even a locked jaw. Treatment is non-invasive, which means there is no surgery or other similar procedures involved. Instead, mechanical barriers, like mouth guards, and a look at your lifestyle to see if stress is an issue, may help solve the problem.

What causes teeth grinding (bruxism)?

Awake bruxism, teeth grinding while you are awake, occurs most often during times of stress. People who are angry or tense may unknowingly clench their jaws and rub their teeth together.

Sleep bruxism can also be triggered by stress or anxiety, but it may also be caused by some medical conditions, like cerebral palsy or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It is also important to look at medications because some, particularly some antidepressants and antipsychotics, can cause teeth grinding at night.

Children can begin grinding their teeth as early as when their first teeth come in. They could grind their teeth on purpose, to try to ease the pain of an earache, for example. Or as they get older, they too may grind their teeth in response to stress. Another cause of bruxism among children is misaligned teeth, when the top and bottom teeth don’t meet as they should.

What are the risk factors for teeth grinding (bruxism)?

There are a few factors that increase the risk of developing teeth grinding, although not all people with any of the risk factors will develop bruxism. Risk factors for teeth grinding include:

  • Age. Children are more likely to grind their teeth than adults.
  • Certain medical disorders, including Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy, dementia and sleep apnea
  • Cigarette smoking or using recreational drugs
  • Family history of bruxism
  • Medications, such as certain antidepressants
  • Stress or having an aggressive or competitive personality

How do you stop teeth grinding (bruxism)?

While you can’t eliminate all risk factors, such as age, family history or medical diagnosis, you may be able to lower your risk of teeth grinding by:

  • Learning how to manage stress or anger
  • Speaking with your pharmacist or doctor about your medication if you think it may be a side effect
  • Adjusting behaviors by not smoking, limiting caffeine and alcohol intake, and avoiding recreational drugs
  • Following treatment plans for underlying medical conditions or disorders

Visiting your dentist for regular check-ups can help identify teeth grinding while it is still in its early stages. If your dentist has said you grind your teeth or you suspect you do, speak with your doctor as well, to see if there is something else you can do to stop it.

How do dentists diagnose teeth grinding (bruxism)?

Your dentist can diagnose teeth grinding during a routine dental examination. Aside from checking your teeth for signs of wear from the grinding, your dentist may also check for:

  • Broken, cracked, loose or missing teeth
  • Tenderness in the jaw joint

You may be asked questions like:

  • Has anyone ever told you that you grind your teeth?
  • Do you have any pain in or around your jaw? If so, how long have you had it? Is it getting worse?
  • Are any of your teeth sensitive to cold or heat?
  • Are you under a lot of stress?
  • Do you clench your teeth when stressed or angry?
  • How well do you sleep?

What are the treatments for teeth grinding (bruxism)?

There are two approaches to treating teeth grinding. The first is to stop the damage you may do to your teeth by making a buffer between your upper and lower teeth. The second approach is to discover and treat or manage the cause.

Dental treatment for teeth grinding

Dental treatment involves using a teeth grinding mouth guard or splint at night to protect your upper and lower teeth from connecting and grinding. The guard or splint is fit over either the bottom or lower teeth. These devices may not stop the actual grinding, but they reduce the damage to the teeth and relieve muscle tension.

Medical treatment for teeth grinding

Once you know you grind your teeth, speak with your doctor about possible treatments. They might include:

  • Counseling to help manage stress, anger or anxiety
  • Reevaluation of any current medications you are taking, to see if they may be the cause
  • Medications

Home remedies for teeth grinding

There are some actions you can take that could reduce teeth grinding and help manage discomfort when you do. They include:

  • Lifestyle changes, like stopping smoking, limiting caffeine and alcohol, and avoiding recreational drugs
  • Avoiding chewing gum and eating hard foods, like candy and nuts
  • Practicing good sleep hygiene for a better night’s sleep
  • Doing facial exercises to relax the muscles
  • Applying ice packs or heating pad to the jaw muscles when they are sore
  • Learning relaxation techniques
  • Learning how to pay attention to your mouth’s position throughout the day. Are you clenching your teeth? If so, actively relax your mouth.

What are the potential complications of teeth grinding (bruxism)?

Complications from teeth grinding can affect your quality of life. They include:

  • Damage to your teeth. Your dentist will have to repair your teeth or broken fillings and crowns.
  • Frequent headaches, resulting from the tension in your jaw muscles
  • Jaw pain, which could make it difficult for you to eat, drink or even talk
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Mar 26
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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