Do you wake up tired with a sore jaw, sensitive teeth, headache, or even an earache? Does your family or partner report hearing you grinding your teeth in your sleep? Have you noticed the surfaces of your teeth wearing down? Then you may be one of the approximately one third of people who suffer from sleep bruxism.
Sleep bruxism, also known as nocturnal bruxism, refers to the unconscious clenching and grinding of the teeth during sleep. That tension and motion can wear down, chip, or crack teeth, stress the muscles in the head and face, and even damage your temporomandibular joint, the joint that allows the movement of the jaw.
Once you’ve recognized the symptoms of sleep bruxism, the next task is to find the cause. For many people, that cause is stress. But for some, it goes a little deeper.
Is Stress Ruining Your Sleep?
Studies have shown that those who experience sleep bruxism are more predisposed to anxiety, stress, fear, and frustration than those who do not. It’s common for people who have internalized a lot of stress to become physically tense, which is why so many people experience neck and back pain during times of high stress. This tension can also manifest in your jaw, leading to clenching and grinding the teeth involuntarily over the course of the night.
For people who are experiencing bruxism as a result of stress, the best treatment may simply be addressing the source of stress. After all, stress doesn’t just hurt your teeth — it can literally kill you. Stress can be related to work, family, relationships, or any number of other subjects. Treating it could be as simple as changing some habits or lifestyle decisions, or you may need to consult with a mental health professional to get to the bottom of it.
But what if stress isn’t the cause of your sleep bruxism? Doing yoga or meditating won’t help you if the source of your symptoms isn’t in your mind, but in your jaw.
TMJ and Sleep Bruxism
If stress isn’t the cause of your sleep bruxism, it could be dangerous to misdiagnose it as such. One other possible cause of bruxism is TMJ, a disorder affecting the delicate, carefully balanced jaw joint that allows your jaw to move up, down, right, left, and even diagonally. This complex joint needs to be both flexible and strong to stand up to the daily labor that we subject it to. When this joint becomes misaligned, the muscle tension can spread through the face, head, neck, and even to the back and hands. And the pain and discomfort aren’t even the worst symptoms of TMJ — if untreated, TMJ can result in further damage to the teeth and jaw, and may even someday require the surgical replacement of the entire joint.
The jaw pain, tension headaches, and tooth wear that accompany severe bruxism are also symptoms of TMJ. Other symptoms include ear pain (sometimes accompanied by vertigo or a persistent ringing), numbness or tingling in the hands and fingers, popping or clicking of the jaw, and even back and shoulder pain. If you experience some of these other symptoms, it may be a good idea to see your dentist about the possibility of TMJ.
If you are diagnosed with TMJ, treatment can reduce or eliminate your pain and discomfort, including sleep bruxism. Your dentist will analyze your jaw to find the ideal position of least tension, and then suggest some treatment options to retrain your jaw to rest in that position.