Teeth grinding: Causes, treatment, consequences

Martina Feichter studied biology in Innsbruck with an elective in pharmacy and also immersed herself in the world of medicinal plants. From there it was not far to other medical topics that fascinate her to this day. She trained as a journalist at the Axel Springer Academy in Hamburg and has been working for NetDoktor since 2007.

Teeth grinding (bruxism) is the name given to involuntary grinding and pressing of the rows of teeth together without this serving any purpose – such as chewing. Teeth grinding usually occurs during sleep. Possible cause is stress, for example. Teeth grinding can cause pain and severe tooth damage. Here you can read everything you need to know about the causes and treatment options for grinding teeth.

Teeth grinding: Description of the

When teeth are grinding (bruxism), those affected involuntarily grind the rows of teeth and press them together without pursuing a functional purpose (such as chewing). Rhythmic, chewing-like movements can also occur. In many cases teeth grinding occurs during sleep (nocturnal bruxism).

The grinding of teeth causes extremely strong pressure on teeth and jaw joints – up to 480 kilograms per square centimetre (kg/cm2). This is ten times the normal chewing pressure. And these enormous forces do not only affect teeth and jaws for a short time: In extreme cases, teeth grinding can last up to 45 minutes a day.

The long-term consequences are severe damage to the teeth and jaw, facial and headaches. In extreme cases, teeth grinding can lead to the loss of teeth, tension and pain in the back area.

Teeth grinding in sleep and during the day

The symptom usually occurs during sleep, both in the form of crunching and pressing the jaws together; doctors speak of nocturnal bruxism or sleep bruxism.

Diurnal bruxism, the grinding of teeth during the day, is less common. Usually only the jaws are strongly compressed.

Centric and eccentric bruxism

Some people unconsciously press their teeth very hard against each other. With this centric bruxism, extremely strong forces act on the teeth and jaw joints.

With eccentric bruxism, on the other hand, the teeth are rubbed against each other, which produces a more or less loud grinding noise.

Primary and secondary bruxism

Furthermore, physicians distinguish between primary and secondary bruxism:

In primary bruxism, no medical cause for teeth grinding can be found. Secondary bruxism, on the other hand, is associated with a known cause such as neurological or psychiatric disorders, sleep disorders or medication.

Teeth grinding: Baby & Child

If you notice teeth grinding in your baby, this is usually no cause for concern: About half of all babies start grinding their teeth when they are about ten months old. In this way, the ingrowing milk teeth are “ground in” one on top of the other. Bruxism usually disappears with the loss of the milk teeth.

If, on the other hand, schoolchildren have more frequent teeth grinding, this can be an indication of stress – especially if other signs such as nail biting or gnawing at pins are added. Parents should then talk to their pediatrician or adolescent doctor. He may advise relaxing measures against bruxism: relaxation exercises or a warm bath in the evening, for example, can help reduce the child’s stress level.

In order to avoid (further) damage to the teeth, there is often only one thing that helps with teeth grinding: a splint made of metal-reinforced plastic (bite splint, “bite splint”). It is individually adapted to the child and must be worn at night.

Teeth grinding: Causes and possible diseases

Experts assume that several factors are involved in the development of teeth grinding.

Stress factors such as coping with everyday problems and an emotional imbalance of the patient are particularly frequent. Every second person reacts to stress at times with teeth grinding. But only in one fifth of these patients does it develop into a permanent problem.

In addition, disturbances when the jaws bite together can trigger the symptom. Such disorders can be caused, for example, by malpositioned teeth or unsuitable crowns or fillings. Also outgrowing teeth as a result of missing teeth in the opposing jaw can impair the clenching of the jaws and lead to teeth grinding.

Other possible causes of bruxism include increased consumption of stimulants (such as alcohol and caffeine) and certain medications.

Finally, bruxism can also occur in the context of various diseases. These include Restless Legs Syndrome, Obstructive Sleep Apnea, Blood Circulation and Brain Bleeding, Nocturnal Epilepsy, Huntington’s Chorea, Parkinson’s Syndrome. Children may experience teeth grinding in connection with speaking during sleep (somniloquy) and wetting (enuresis).

Diseases with this symptom

Find out here about the diseases that can cause the symptom:

Teeth grinding: When should you see a doctor?

If you notice that you grind your teeth more often during the day or press them firmly against each other, you should go to the dentist. Some patients are also made aware of the problem by their partner. This is especially the case with teeth grinding during sleep, where the affected person does not notice anything. Only a stiff, tired lower jaw or irritation of the roots of the teeth (pain when chewing) in the morning after waking up can the affected person himself point to bruxism.

Teeth grinding: What does the doctor do?

In most cases, the dentist can quickly conclude from some indications that teeth are grinding. Treacherous signs are for example:

  • pressure-sensitive masticatory muscles
  • Impressions of teeth in tongue and cheek
  • smooth polished surfaces on the teeth (ground surfaces)
  • cracks and bursts in the tooth enamel
  • Bursting of hard tooth substance at the tooth necks and cutting edges
  • sensitive teeth

When teeth grinding during sleep, people usually say that their jaw appears stiff and tired in the morning after waking up. The grinding and clenching of the rows of teeth is often audibly perceived by life partners.

How the dentist can treat teeth grinding

Dentists can adapt a bite splint (occlusion splint) to a patient with this symptom: It protects the remaining tooth structure and the periodontium and contributes to a relaxed position of the upper and lower jaw.

Physiotherapy can relax painfully tense muscles, promote blood circulation in the tissues and train the coordination of jaw movements. If necessary, pain-relieving medications or muscle relaxants can also be given for teeth grinding. However, they should only be used for a short time.

The treatment of the causes is important for this symptomatology if possible. Stress is often the trigger for bruxism. Those affected therefore benefit from measures to reduce and cope with stress. For example, psychotherapy and psychological procedures can be helpful. These include relaxation methods (such as autogenic training, progressive muscle relaxation according to Jakobson) and pain management strategies.

Biofeedback methods can also help against teeth grinding. With the help of electronic devices one learns to become aware of unconscious processes of the body (such as grinding teeth). In this way you can control them deliberately – for example by relaxing the jaw muscles.

Important studies

These examinations help to find the causes of the complaints:

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Christina Cherry
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