Clenching and grinding your teeth is a common involuntary reaction to anger, fear, or stress. In some people, this reaction plays out repeatedly throughout the day, even if they aren’t responding to an immediate stressor. This involuntary tooth grinding is known as bruxism. Bruxism can happen while awake or asleep, but people are much less likely to know that they grind their teeth when sleeping. Because of the force applied during episodes of sleep bruxism, the condition can pose serious problems for the teeth and jaw and may require treatment to reduce its impact.
The main symptom of sleep bruxism is involuntary clenching and grinding of the teeth during sleep. The movements resemble chewing but generally involve more force. People with sleep bruxism don’t grind their teeth throughout the night. Instead, they have episodes of clenching and grinding. People may have very few episodes per night or up to 100. The frequency of episodes is often inconsistent, and teeth grinding may not occur every night.
Jaw pain and neck pain are two frequent signs of teeth grinding. These occur because of the tightening of these muscles during episodes of bruxism. Morning headaches that feel like tension headaches are another potential symptom. Unexplained damage to teeth can also be a sign of night-time clenching and grinding of teeth.
Multiple factors influence the risk of sleep bruxism, so it’s usually not possible to identify one single cause for why people grind their teeth. That said, certain risk factors are associated with a greater probability of sleep bruxism.
Sleep bruxism is diagnosed by a doctor or a dentist, but the diagnostic process can vary depending on the type of health professional providing oral care. An overnight study in a sleep clinic, known as polysomnography, is the most conclusive way to diagnose sleep bruxism. However, polysomnography can be time-consuming and expensive and may not be necessary in certain cases.
No treatment can eliminate or cure teeth grinding during sleep, but several approaches can decrease episodes and limit damage to the teeth and jaw (check out these tips to cope with bruxism).