Grinding your teeth at night is generally pretty annoying. Either it annoys your bed partner because of the grinding sounds you’re making, or it can annoy your teeth by wearing them down. But you can take some of the annoying out, even if you might not be able to really stop the habit.
Why do you do it in the first place? “Nobody knows for sure,” says Alan G. Glaros, Ph.D., professor in the department of dental public health and behavioral science at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “In some people, stress will increase the likelihood of doing it, but it’s not totally tied to stress, he says.”
Nighttime teeth grinding, which dentists call bruxism, “tends to happen on its own schedule,” he says. Kids sometimes do it as their teeth are changing from their primary to their permanent ones, and then the habit goes away. In adults, it can come and go, Dr. Glaros explains. “Grinding at night seems to be associated with certain sleep stages; in some ways, grinding during sleep is kind of a sleep disorder.”
The Trouble with Tooth Grinding
Grinding your teeth at night can cause a spectrum of damage to your teeth. Some people just get a wear spot that you wouldn’t get from normal chewing. Others grind through the enamel to the soft spot of the tooth, and yet others actually grind down a lot of the tooth structure. Dr. Glaros has seen cases so severe that about a third of the whole tooth structure is worn down.
How to Stop Grinding Your Teeth at Night
So if stress isn’t the cause, meditation or stress management isn’t the cure, even though diminishing stress and its effects are generally good for you.
“No one has found a good way to stop it,” Dr. Glaros says. But not for lack of trying. Some researchers even tested alarms that would detect through muscle activity when grinding is happening. They actually reduced the intensity of grinding, but once you took the device away, Dr. Glaros explains, the habit came back.
So the next-best thing to do is to is to keep grinding from damaging your teeth. And sorry, that’s going to be a mouth guard.
You can get over-the-counter ones; “boil and bite” ones that customize the guard to your teeth. “If they work for you, that’s great,” says Dr. Glaros. Thing is, they often don’t. It might be uncomfortable, since it’s not custom, and you might grind right through it. Since they’re soft plastic, “some people tend to chew on it.”
Some people turn to an NTI mouth guard; a little spacer that’s about the size of a couple of pieces of gum that goes between your front teeth at night. They’re only OK, because they allow the back teeth, when they’re totally unopposed at night, to “super erupt,” as doctors put it. Meaning they actually grow taller, throwing off your bite.
Which brings you to hard plastic mouth guards created by your dentist. They’re not the cheapest, but they’re custom made of hard plastic, which means they fit you without any gag-inducing overage, they discourage grinding, and they protect the surface of your teeth.
Do You Really Need a Mouth Guard?
Maybe! What you never hear about grinding your teeth at night is that before you go to all the cost and trouble of getting a mouth guard, you want to be sure you’re actually grinding your teeth right now. “Your teeth are a historical record of tooth activity,” says Dr. Glaros. “Once you have a wear spot on a tooth, it doesn’t go away. But people can grind their teeth and then stop doing it. That’s why it’s important to verify that grinding is going on now. The dentist could be seeing something that happened in the past and may not be continuing.”
How do you know if you’re grinding your teeth at night? A sleep study will tell you, says Dr. Glaros, but a much cheaper option is to ask a bed partner if you do. “I think it’s a key point to get trustworthy information that this is going on in the present, and protect your teeth against further damage,” he says. Keeping them healthy now can save you a lot of money later on restoring worn-away teeth. Make sure you make these other tooth-saving moves, too.
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