Nocturnal Gnashing

Some treatments for tooth-grinding you can sink your teeth into.

By Karyn Maier

From May, 2006

You wake up and feel aches in your head, ear and jaw, but you know that the one glass of merlot you polished off the night before couldn’t give you such hangover-like pain. The problem? You could be spending the night grinding or clenching your teeth, a condition called bruxism and one that can bring a good night’s sleep to a grinding halt.

Twenty-one percent of Americans have this nocturnal habit that would make even Count Dracula cringe. But because bruxism occurs during sleep, 80% of teeth grinders are unaware they’re doing it. While most cases are mild and may not require intervention, more severe bruxers experience everything from distorted facial features to tooth destruction.

“The structure of the teeth can be ground away,” says John T. Grbic, DMD, director of the Center for Clinical Research in Dentistry at Columbia University, “and existing restorations may break or fracture. And if the teeth have experienced bone loss, bruxing can further loosen them.” Over time, chronic bruxism can also lead to hearing loss.

The Roots of the Problem

Many factors can trigger habitual teeth grinding. Stress and anxiety seem to be the chief instigators, but an abnormal bite, or missing or crooked teeth run a close second. Sleep apnea or Parkinson’s disease can also contribute to bruxism and the malady can be an uncommon side effect of some antidepressant medications, particularly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Studies suggest that these medications can over-stimulate the central nervous system and lead to involuntary movements during sleep, including bruxing.

Ending the Grind

If you fear turning your pearly whites into nubs it’s time to get a grip on your nightly gnashing. Traditional approaches range from clenching-suppression devices and sound alarms to cognitive and behavioral therapy. If your dentist determines that bruxing is causing significant damage to your teeth, then you may have to bite the bullet and wear a night guard. However, as Grbic cautions, “Be very careful about buying over-the-counter night guards because improperly made ones can cause even more damage.” Your orthodontist is your best bet for a custom fit.

If life has you biting off more than you can chew and causing stress try meditation, listening to instrumental music, reciting poetry or even watching your favorite TV comedy before bedtime. A daily workout routine not only helps to reduce stress, but also releases endorphins, the body’s natural painkilling substances.

Exercising your jowls before bedtime can also diminish your nightly grind. Give them something else to chew on besides your teeth, such as raw apples, carrots or celery. Nightcaps such as alcohol or caffeine-laden drinks are no-nos because they can disturb your sleep cycle and increase muscle activity in your jaw.

During the day, however, you should increase your intake of calcium, magnesium and pantothenic acid (vitamin B-5). At least two studies report that bruxism was reduced or even disappeared in subjects who supplemented with these nutrients for at least five weeks.
Of course, there is no substitute for regular dental checkups if you want to put your nighttime teeth-grinding to bed.

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