Grinding the teeth (bruxism) or clenching the teeth is a common response to stress or anxiety. In adults, habitual clenching or grinding the teeth can cause chronic pain and long-term health problems. Many people aren’t aware they grind or clench at night. Here are the signs, causes and treatment.
About Tooth Grinding or Clenching
Bruxism is grinding of the teeth, while clenching is just clenching, but both can cause ongoing physical and emotional health problems.
Gnashing the teeth in childhood is common, due to changes in the child’s mouth. A child who grinds her teeth will usually grow out of it naturally. In adults, grinding or clenching the teeth is a common human response to stress. Most people clench or grind now and then. Usually, when the stress is relieved, the tooth grinding and clenching subsides.
The problems arise when a person develops a clenching or grinding habit. The person may grind and/or clench during the day as well, but the habit is much worse at night. The jaw is strong enough to bite off a finger, and the clenching power of the jaw muscles is five to seven times as intense at night as it is during the day.
Chronic grinding or clenching is usually subconscious. Many people are surprised to find that they clench or grind at night. It’s only when a bed partner speaks up, or a tooth shatters, that the grinder/clencher becomes aware of the problem.
Signs of Clenching or Grinding (Bruxism) at Night
The signs of clenching or grinding are most obvious in the morning. Morning signs of clenching or grinding may include:
- jaw tension and/or pain
- tooth pain or hypersensitivity
- sore gums
- earache, often radiating to the jaw or teeth
- headache, often in the temples, or base of the skull
- ear itch
- watery, weeping ears; or, dry flaking ear canals
- tongue or throat tension
- sore throat
- neck pain or stiffness
- facial pain
- anxiety or depression in the morning
- anger or feelings of frustration in the morning
- fatigue upon waking
Signs of chronic grinding or clenching the teeth may include:
- broken, cracked or chipped teeth, often in the back
- receding gums
- gum inflammation
- sensitive teeth
- tooth decay
- chronic neck pain or strain
- persistent jaw ache or tension
- intense ear itch, and/or ongoing ear pain or infection
- sinusitis that resists treatment
- facial pain
- back pain
- shoulder pain
- changes to the mouth or face – jaw may deviate to one side, or teeth are unable to find their “bite”
- changes in speech, or difficulty speaking or swallowing
- lack of balance or coordination (clumsiness)
- ongoing fatigue
Grinding or clenching the teeth affects the jaw joints, also known as the temporomandibular joints (TMJs). An intricate network of nerves, muscles, tendons, veins and other tissue exists in the area of the jaw joints. Ongoing stress or damage to the jaw joints can cause inflammation and pain in adjoining areas such as the ears, teeth, face and neck. Inflammation of the inner ear may cause problems with balance and coordination.