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Clenching & Grinding

We can halt and prevent tooth decay; we can fill in gaps between our teeth and stop overcrowding before it occurs. But one thing we cannot do is keep our teeth from grinding and clenching – technically known as bruxism (“gnashing of the teeth”). Everyone grinds their teeth once in awhile. But this condition, which takes a toll on tooth enamel and bone, as well as our gums and jaw, persists in about 20 percents of the adult population during waking hours and 8 percent during sleep, and up to 18 percent of children.

It used to be thought that the cause of bruxism was an off-kilter bite. That concept is being revisited. It is now believed that clenching and grinding are in large part lifestyle reflexes – reactions to stress and anxiety. Teeth-grinding (sideways movements of the jaw with the teeth just touching) typically occurs during sleep. It is also a not-uncommon 24/7 side effect among those taking medications for depression, developmental disorders, and schizophrenia, and those taking recreational drugs like ecstasy and cocaine.

Nighttime bruxers’ teeth can grind up to 40 minutes for every hour of sleep, with as much as 250 pounds of force per square inch. That’s enough force to crack a walnut.Clenching (pressing the teeth together) by contrast, is more of a waking-hours activity. Again, this can be a response to stress and anxiety.

Over the years, bruxism takes a toll. Teeth are not made of stone. When we bite our teeth flex and rock a bit from the gum line; eventually this affects the way they sit in the gums. If we continually bite, clench, or grind the enamel wears down faster than it would during normal use. What’s more, when we grind our teeth during sleep our bite tends not to be in a normal position, but involves the tip of the tooth and the force of grinding is applied in an awkward way. Adding insult to injury, during sleep our mouth doesn’t provide as much lubricating saliva as during the day which causes additional stress on the enamel.

The consequences of bruxing are likely to include:

  • Front teeth worn to exactly the same length.
  • Microcracks that may eventually damage the nerve
  • Broken fillings
  • Temperature sensitivity to hot & cold from enamel wear.
  • Aching jaws
  • Headaches
  • Altered saliva flow

There is no cure for bruxism.  Instead, the condition is managed. State-of -the-art anti-bruxing devices are hard acrylic splints, custom fitted by your dentist, to be worn day or night.  They function as bumper guards that absorb the force of clenching and grinding.

Also worth trying are relaxation techniques.  These include the usual suspects – yoga, daily excersise and biofeedback.  Also, some massage therapists specialize in techniques for people with joint pain and soreness from clenching and grinding.  Also stay away from spicy foods, caffeine, and other stimuli in the pre-bedtime hours.

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