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Why Do We Clench & Grind Our Teeth When We Sleep?

Some of your sleepy-time habits you’re aware of: snoring when you’re sick or had too much to drink, tossing and turning when a work deadline has you feeling anxious or maybe talking while you’re in dreamland. Other common activities you might be less tuned-in to, but they happen more frequently than you realize, like clenching or grinding your teeth (also known as bruxism). The amount of damage you could cause to your smile and overall health depends on how often and how intensely you press and chatter. Here is a guide to what causes people of all ages to clench and grind while they’re nodding off and what to do if you’re part of this crowd.

What does it mean to clench or grind your teeth?

When you clench or grind your teeth at night, you’re unconsciously pressing your teeth together tightly or even moving them back and forth against each other. Dentist Dr. Sabrina Magid-Katz explains that many people who have this nightly routine likely won’t realize it until a dentist notices the wear and tear on their teeth at their biannual cleaning. One symptom you might feel is sensitivity. As Magid-Katz says, the more you grind your teeth, the more you wear away the enamel, leaving you sensitive to hot or cold liquids.

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What are the dangers of grinding your teeth?

So, you happen to grind your teeth a lot at night. No big deal, right? Nope. This is not a time to grin and bear it, Magid-Katz says. When your dentist recognizes this issue, they will likely be keen to solve it since over-grinding can cause a slew of issues ranging from negatively impacting the appearance of your smile to the compromising the actual structure and longevity of your teeth.

Clenching and grinding can cause loss of structure of the teeth at the gumline, which can make your gums sensitive and your smile less appealing, she notes. Not only that, but clenching and grinding can also cause loosening of the teeth, jaw problems or temporomandibular (where your lower jaw connects to your skull)  joint disorders, which results in facial pain, chronic headaches and clicking in the jaw and could lead to osteoarthritis of the jaw.

“Teeth grinding and clenching is very detrimental to the teeth, the supporting structures of the bone and gums and the muscles and joints which makes up the jaw mechanism,” Magid-Katz adds.

Why do people grind their teeth?

The answer to this isn’t quite as simple as you might like. Magid-Katz says many dentists debate the topic, with a slew of theories about what could be the culprit. “There are different opinions as to why people grind their teeth. While some think it is a stress habit, others think it is a discrepancy in the bite,” she explains. “Research also indicates that clenching can be a sign of an airway problem. Many medications cause grinding and clenching as a side effect.”

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What to do if you’re clenching your teeth

If you suspect you’re locking down once the lights are out, it’s best to consult your dentist, who will lead you in the direction that’s best for your specific needs. According to Magid-Katz, there are several options they might suggest.

Oral appliance (mouth guard)

While it might feel cumbersome to sleep in, certain teeth clenchers need the extra help to ensure they’re not threatening the durability of their teeth. It won’t actually cure the issue, but Magid-Katz says it will protect your teeth and jaw. Don’t just head to your pharmacy, though. Make the time and investment to ensure it’s the ideal fit for your unique mouth.

“Determining the cause and correcting it can be very effective,” Magid-Katz explains. “Over-the-counter oral appliances are available, but we don’t recommend them because of lack of proper bite and functional design. In addition, over-the-counter appliances are soft, and people tend to chew them, making the problem worse.”

Take a sleep study

Sometimes clenching your teeth can be an indicator of another sleep issue, so a study while you slumber may be effective. “It is important to rule out an airway problem as the cause of the clenching,” Magid-Katz says. “Untreated sleep apnea can cause serious medical conditions, such as heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, impotence and depression. A sleep study may even be taken at home to provide insight as to how you are sleeping.”

Reduce stress & be aware

If you’ve only recently started grinding after a difficult lifestyle shift or hectic few weeks, Magid-Katz says being aware of your stress levels can make a huge impact on your nighttime activity. This is why she recommends finding ways to decompress and de-stress, like yoga or meditation.

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You can also start to break the cycle if you feel yourself biting down while you’re awake too. “It is important to become aware of it so you can catch yourself and stop,” she says. “The rule is ‘lips together, teeth apart’ unless you are chewing or swallowing or smiling.” 

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