"My dentist says I'm grinding in my sleep. What can I do about it?"

Image via iStock

The other week, my dentist accused me of grinding. No, he wasn’t commenting on my Saturday night dance moves, but rather the repetitive action my teeth were allegedly doing while I slept.

I was a little shocked. I hadn’t even been aware I was doing it, until he pointed out how tight my jaw muscles were. How could I have been so oblivious?

Known in the medical world as bruxism, grinding is the accelerated damage caused by excessive tooth-to-tooth contact, and is often done during sleep.

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The Sleep Health Foundation estimates that while about half of adult Australians will be guilty of grinding at some point, only one in 20 cases is actually serious.

“Grinding can severely damage teeth and in some cases cause nerve pain, dramatically increasing your chances of cracking a tooth and potentially leading to tooth removal. From a cosmetic point of view, it produces short, flat teeth that can make a person look prematurely aged,” explains Dr Ben Wilcox, principal dentist at Shore Dental.

If left untreated, repetitive grinding can also lead to jaw pain and headaches. (Post continues after gallery.)

For obvious reasons, if you’re grinding in your sleep it can be hard to know you’re doing it. Your dentist will be able to confirm straight away, but common signs include aching and stiffness around the jaw after waking up and during chewing, cracked or chipped enamel, teeth indentations left on the tongue or inside of your cheeks, and grinding sounds that rouse your sleeping partner.

There is no single cause for the midnight grind, but rather a whole range of contributing factors, including your emotions, your age and even your personality.

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According to Dr Wilcox, stress is a common cause — whether it’s emotional, such as anger or anxiety, or physical stress, which can result from illness, dehydration or poor nutrition. The grinding can be done consciously or unconsciously.
Chemicals in alcohol and caffeine have been found to increase grinding, and recreational drug use is another common cause.
If you’re a perfectionist, those prolonged periods of concentration such as exercise or study can also contribute to your grinding.
Intense concentration like during study can contribute to grinding. Image via iStock.
Dr Ben Wilcox says other dental issues may also be responsible. "Some people have an anatomical component where the muscles for chewing or the position of the teeth exaggerate a process that occurs naturally to everyone over a lifetime," he says.
Once you've identified the likely cause of your grinding, your dentist can recommend making changes that will be most effective at minimising it, if it's possible.
Better Health recommends stress managment therapy, regular exercise and relaxation techniques to loosen and relax the jaw muscles.
As well as ensuring you have a healthy and balanced lifestyle, Dr Wilcox says the best way to stop grinding is wearing a night guard that protects the biting surfaces of the teeth to prevent excessive tooth wear.
"These can range from ultra thin clear plastic protection to a more comprehensive solution to fit the requirements of the particular dental situation," he says.
Do you have grinding problems? How do you manage it?