Your Sleep Teeth-Grinding Habit Can Stop If You Use These 3 Treatments

So long, jaw pain.

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Due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, we have been living through an unusual and challenging part of history for over a year. While we may have felt enthusiastic to take care of ourselves at the start, heightened anxiety might have diminished our healthy habits—which has repercussions for our sleep and oral health.

A survey released at the end of last year by the American Dental Association showed that 60% of dentists reported increases in the prevalence of teeth grinding, otherwise known as bruxism, and other stress-related oral health conditions. But don’t fret if this is a habit you’ve been doing during the pandemic. We connected with a sleep psychologist and dentist to give us the low-down, from bruxism symptoms to solutions.

What is bruxism?

Bruxism is a condition in which you grind, gnash or clench your teeth, either when you’re awake or asleep. Some people get facial pain and headaches and it can wear down your teeth over time and even break fillings.

“I first noticed the problem last September,” Harrison Smith, 27, tells HelloGiggles. “I woke up one morning with jaw pain and unable to open my mouth wider than a few centimeters; I struggled to even eat breakfast. After a bit of research and a dental appointment, I realized this was due to clenching my jaw in my sleep tied to a lot of pent-up pandemic-related anxiety.”

If, like Harrison, you’ve had jaw stiffness, worn-down teeth, or disrupted sleep, you could have bruxism.

“The chewing muscles are big muscles and can build up a lot of lactic acid and tension,” says dentist and specialist prosthodontist Ian Small. “Our recent lifestyle changes and the economic uncertainty means we may be carrying around more tension than normal, which could go straight to the teeth.”

What causes bruxism?

Bruxism can be a side effect of certain medications (such as antidepressants) and it is more likely to occur for people who have a sleep disorder, like obstructive sleep apnoea.

According to The Bruxism Association, lifestyle factors can contribute to bruxism, and tobacco use and alcohol consumption can increase your risk, especially if consumed right before bed. However, in 70% of cases, the primary cause is stress and anxiety.

We experience many stressors throughout the day, which can spill over into the night. However, it carries over in different ways for different people. Some might have nightmares or insomnia and for others, it manifests as teeth grinding.

Dr. Small added: “Quite often, just knowing this is an anxiety issue, which has a specific name, can be enough for people. It’s reassuring to know it has a psychological element, as opposed to being caused by an underlying and detrimental dental issue.”

How to treat bruxism?

Mild bruxism may not require treatment. In more severe cases, however, treatment aims to minimize any dental complications and tackle the cause by reducing stress and anxiety.

Anxiety and stress treatments:

“To alleviate sleep bruxism, a good wind down routine before bed can be really effective,” says Dr. Neda Gould, clinical psychologist and assistant professor at the Department of Psychology at John Hopkins School of Medicine.

“This could be meditation, deep breathing, or reading before bed,” Dr. Gould says. However, Dr. Gould says that while we know these habits will make us feel better, we often don’t do them. “Shifting behavior is hard, especially in the fast-paced world we live in,” she says. “You’re not going to change your whole bedtime routine overnight but small incremental changes are still beneficial. You could plan to meditate for five minutes and then increase this to ten minutes after a few weeks. Don’t be too harsh on yourself if you don’t do it, too.” If necessary, your dentist may refer you to a specialist therapist or counselor.

Jaw exercises:

If attempts to alleviate stress haven’t worked, Dr. Small says your dentist may recommend some simple jaw exercises, which aim to bring balance back between the muscles that control the jaw joint.

This gets a big tick from Dr. Gould, too: “Systematic tension and then relaxation of your shoulder, jaw, and face muscles throughout the day can give the body a better understanding of what relaxation feels like. It can help you notice when you’re grinding your teeth and what your triggers are. This can help you begin to break the habit.”

Mouth guards and mouth splints:

A final step may be to wear a mouth guard at night. These even out the pressure across your jaw and create a physical barrier to protect your teeth from further damage. They also reduce any grinding noises you make at night.

“Mouth guards are similar to those used in sports such as boxing or rugby. They are made of soft polymer or acrylic and can be made by a dentist to fit your mouth,” says Dr. Small. “These usually work for about 50% of patients. For more complex cases, dentists can make a more sophisticated bite splint. This is more rigid and can take two to three appointments to adjust.”

Putting an end to teeth grinding can help ease pain, preserve your teeth, and keep you smiling with confidence. Talk to your dentist to find the best treatment for you.