Grinding Teeth in Sleep: Causes, Effects, Treatments

Grinding teeth in sleep, also known as Bruxism, is a medical condition defined by pressing and clenching teeth together repeatedly. This condition has, until recently, baffled doctors and scientists. However, recent studies have underlined a number of patterns and connections which today allow us to help you stop grinding teeth in sleep.

In this article, we will look at grinding teeth in sleep from a number of perspectives. We will first explain what bruxism is and how its different forms manifest themselves. Then, we will take a closer look at some of the causes of bruxism, its effects on health and, finally, on a set of solutions which should help you cure your condition.

Grinding Teeth in Sleep: What is Bruxism?

The grinding of teeth, be it during day or night, is commonly known as bruxism. Its most common symptoms are teeth-grinding, jaw-clenching and involuntary jaw muscle contraction. The most important point we need to make is that sleep bruxism and daytime bruxism appear to be fundamentally different in origin, even though their symptoms and manifestation are similar.

Daytime Bruxism

Daytime bruxism is quite common, with approximately 25% of the general population displaying behavior consistent with its defining symptoms. The signature manifestation of daytime bruxism is involuntary jaw clenching and teeth grinding, which can cause increasing pain throughout the day.

While the mechanics of tooth grinding are somewhat similar to grinding teeth in sleep (night bruxism), the underlying causes appear to be different, though both branches have yet to be fully understood. The most common causes of daytime bruxism are believed to be stress and psychological factors, despite the inconclusive medical evidence. Other proposed causes are occlusal affections and orthodontic conditions.

It is important to note that daytime affects women more than men. This could serve as evidence for the theory advocating excessive stress as the cause, but it would be premature to jump to conclusions at this stage of medical research. Rather than proving the above-mentioned point, the more evenly distributed prevalence of nighttime bruxism amongst both genders can serve to indicate a different origin of the condition.

Nighttime Bruxism

Nighttime bruxism is characterized by a more violent grinding of teeth, owed to the fact that there is no conscious instance to control grinding and clenching. This can cause tooth wear at an accelerated rate. In addition, grinding teeth in sleep is also very noisy.

The nighttime version can in no way be conclusively linked with stress and psychological factors, even less so than daytime bruxism. However, there appears to be some evidence for the existence of a hereditary element, as night grinding has been known to pass down from one generation to the next. Finally, the nocturnal form of teeth grinding is evenly spread between genders, which indicates that the root cause is not connected to gender particularities, either anatomical or psychological.grinding teeth in sleep

Grinding Teeth in Sleep: Causes and Origins

For a long time, the general belief amongst doctors was that grinding teeth in sleep was akin to daytime bruxism in terms of causes. Recent studies, however, indicate that nighttime bruxism is entirely different from this point of view.

After intensive clinical trials and tests, doctors have suggested that grinding teeth in sleep might not be a medical condition after all, but a survival mechanism. The key factor here is the quality of your sleep, or more specifically, of how you breathe during your sleep.

By correlating different conditions from different patients, doctors noticed that people who suffer from grinding teeth in sleep are also commonly associated with a form of sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is a severe medical condition in which your airways become blocked during sleep. This can cause extreme discomfort and even have more severe consequences due to a poor oxygenation of the brain.

grinding teeth in sleep caused by sleep apnea

Human sleep goes through different cycles. The deep, dreamless, sleep is highly beneficial to health as it provides the best conditions for your brain, muscles and immune system to recover from your daily exertions. By contrast, the “agitated sleep”, also known as the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) period has other benefits but does not have such a strong resting effect.

Sleep apnea not only damages the quality of your deep sleep but can also cause regular hypoxia (low blood oxygen levels) which can increase the risk of cancer by up to 5 times.

In this context, evidence has been found that grinding teeth in sleep can help open up your airways and thus plays a role in normal breathing during the night. This makes night bruxism an important warning sign that you might be actually suffering from sleep apnea.

Regardless of it being an instinctive counter to sleep apnea, grinding teeth in sleep still comes with all the associated negative consequences of the condition, which can have a serious effect on your overall health and quality of life. Let’s take a look at some of the most important ones.

Grinding Teeth in Sleep: Health Effects and Implications

Grinding teeth in sleep can cause a number of upsetting health, especially dental health, problems:

  • Tooth damage and wear. Grinding teeth in sleep can be especially damaging to your teeth’s integrity, as it causes the enamel to wear down. Enamel is the hard white substance covering the tooth. Once damaged, it cannot be replaced naturally and opens the way for severe dental pain and possible tooth decay. In addition, grinding teeth in sleep is known to be noisy and can have a negative impact on the quality of sleep, both for you and your partner (if the case).
  • TMJ (temporomandibular joint) disorder. TMJ disorder is a serious condition which affects the functionality of your jaw joints and muscles. Symptoms can range from pain and swelling to decreased jaw functionality, inability to chew properly and joint damage. Read a complete analysis of TMJ disorder, its effects, and possible treatments here.
  • Damage to orthodontic treatment and cosmetic dentistry solutions. Nighttime bruxism can cause you to involuntarily damage any device, orthodontic or cosmetic, which you might be using to improve your overall dental health. For instance, grinding teeth at night is especially damaging to porcelain veneers and can easily cause erosion or even detachment of the material. Braces and Invisalign are also vulnerable to grinders, and can suffer irreparable damage if exposed to consistent grinding and clenching.

In light of what has been said, grinding teeth in sleep may be a warning sign for sleep apnea, but has other significant side-effects of its own which should be treated separately.

How to Stop Grinding Teeth in Sleep

If you know or suspect that you are grinding teeth in sleep, make sure you pay a visit to the doctor as soon as you can. Depending on the investigation performed by your doctor and other specialists, any of the following steps could be a solution to improve or even solve your condition.

  • Get your sleep investigated at a specialist. If you suffer from nighttime bruxism, talking to a sleep specialist might be the right thing to do. The doctor can study your body’s behavior during sleep, and can monitor anything from your heart rate and brain activity to any type of movement. Based on the doctor’s assessment or diagnosis, the nature of your grinding might be elucidated and a solution proposed.
  • Visit a dentist to check for tooth damage. Grinding teeth in sleep can severely damage your teeth. Your dentist will be able to correctly determine the damage already done and to inform you as to the rate in which future damage can occur. Depending on your particular case, orthodontic solutions could be recommended to protect your teeth from additional wear.
  • Visit a psychologist. If there is evidence that your sleep is disturbed to psychological reasons, or if you believe you can link psychological trauma and neuroses to your condition, do not hesitate to visit a specialist in the field. Even though there is little direct evidence that psychological factors have any connection to nighttime bruxism, it’s important to note that few doctors have excluded this cause completely or ruled it out in particular cases.

If you suspect you, or someone close, is suffering from grinding teeth in sleep, it is very important not to ignore the condition. Remember that tooth damage is permanent and dental cosmetics are usually very expensive. In addition, nighttime bruxism can be a sign of a more serious condition.

That being said, make sure you contact a specialist as soon as you have reason to believe you might be grinding teeth in sleep.

Image sources: 1, 2

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.