By Sam E. Ruvinov, D.D.S., Originally printed in St. Louis Women’s Journal

If you often wake up with a dull headache, ear ache or pain in your jaw; or your teeth seem super sensitive to heat, cold and even the touch of your tongue, you may have the habit of grinding and clenching your teeth or bruxism. This condition can affect both kids and adults. It is very common among children ages 5 to 13 when their permanent teeth are developing and replacing baby teeth. Approximately one in four adults experience bruxism.

Other signs and symptoms of bruxism may include the following:

  • Teeth grinding and clenching which maybe loud enough to wake your partner;
  • Teeth that are worn, flattened or chipped;
  • Worn tooth enamel, exposing the inside of teeth (dentin);
  • Increased teeth sensitivity;
  • Jaw pain and sore chewing muscles;
  • Ear ache, ringing in the ear;
  • Dull morning headache;
  • A popping or clicking in the temporomandibular joint (TMJ).

Teeth grinding and clenching can be periodic or chronic. Periodic bruxism, in most cases, is mild and may not require treatment. However, it can be frequent, violent and lead to the above mentioned symptoms. Although this habit is unintentional, oral health specialists often point to excessive stress and certain personality types as typical causes of bruxism. Long term grinding and clenching or chronic bruxism can be linked to nutrient deficiencies such as Vitamin B complex and a mineral imbalance of Calcium and Magnesium. Chronic allergies and mouth breathing can contribute to excessive teeth grinding. Using caffeine, tobacco and cocaine seems to increase risk of bruxism.

Recent studies show a correlation between teeth grinding and blood sugar level. Misaligned teeth (malocclusion), missing or crooked teeth can cause the lower jaw to go into an unbalanced position. Some of the teeth and the muscles used for chewing may have to work harder to compensate for others. This can be compared to someone who may have to limp on one foot for a long period of time. Eventually the muscles from one side will have to carry the load for both sides, causing fatigue and pain to the over worked muscle group and in some cases loose teeth. Long term bruxism and muscle imbalance will eventually lead into TMJ disorder or TMD. This may bring a new cascade of signs and symptoms including, but not limited to, chronic headaches, clicking and popping noises when you open and close your mouth, limited jaw opening, earaches, and ringing in the ear.

Treatment for periodic and chronic bruxism varies depending on the cause and severity. It is always easier at the early stages. In majority of cases treatment with a night guard is very effective. The use of a night guard protects your teeth from attrition, relaxes your muscles and mainly switches off the mechanism of grinding and clenching by separating upper and lower teeth from each other. Night guards are relatively easy to make and maintain. In advanced chronic cases with tooth structure loss, loose teeth and TMJ disorder, treatment may include orthodontics (braces), TMJ therapy and full reconstruction of teeth.

Because bruxism often goes unnoticed, be aware of its signs and symptoms. See your doctor or dentist if you have worn teeth or pain in your jaw, face or ear. If you notice that your child is grinding his or her teeth – or has other signs or symptoms of this condition- be sure to mention it at your child’s next dental appointment.