Do you clench and grind your teeth at night? You may do it and not even realize it — likely because you’re asleep. You’re also not alone: Many people suffer from bruxism, the medical term for clenching or gnashing your teeth during the night.
So if you don’t know you’re doing it, how can you tell it’s happening to you?
What Are the Signs of Bruxism?
Bruxism is a common condition that affects millions of Americans every year. It’s characterized by repetitive jaw movements while sleeping. These movements are called “clenches,” and they usually occur in cycles lasting anywhere from one second to several minutes.
Signs of the condition include:
- Sore jaws, headaches, neck pain, sore muscles and/or shoulder pain
- Tooth wear
- Jaw popping (jaw thrusting)
- Tongue biting/cheek biting
- Chipped, fractured or cracked teeth
Treatments for Tooth Grinding
One of the most common treatments for tooth grinding, and one that’s often held as the “gold standard,” is the night guard. How do night guards help with tooth grinding? They protect your teeth from damage caused by excessive pressure. This pressure occurs when your jaw is clenched and your teeth rub against each other. The night guard also helps prevent injury to soft tissues such as gums and cheek tissue.
Night guards are made out of acrylic resin and are custom-made to fit over any type of tooth. They are often customizable to fit your mouth. There are over-the-counter versions (also known as boil-and-bite), but these types can be troublesome for your jaw joints as they are not designed with you in mind.
While night guards may help protect your teeth from damage during clenching and grinding, they have their drawbacks.
But, before we get into the problem with night guards, we need to mention that tooth grinding and clenching is often a telltale sign of a serious condition known as sleep-disordered breathing — particularly that of obstructive sleep apnea.
If you’re experiencing any of these signs, chances are you have sleep apnea:
- Excessive daytime drowsiness
- Frequent nighttime awakenings
- Feeling tired all the time
- Morning headaches
- Difficulty concentrating
Sleep apnea occurs when your airway becomes blocked as you breathe. This causes pauses in breathing, which leads to low oxygen levels in your blood. When your brain senses low oxygen, it wakes you up so you can take another breath. If you continue to snore, stop breathing or wake up repeatedly throughout the night without taking a full breath, you could be suffering from sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea can cause long-term health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, depression, anxiety, memory loss, weight gain and sexual dysfunction. If left untreated, it can lead to death.
Signs of Sleep Apnea
The first step in diagnosing sleep apnea is to ask yourself some questions about your symptoms. Here are some things to consider:
- How often do you experience morning headaches?
- Is there a pattern to your awakening times? For example, does your bedtime vary from week to week?
- Does your partner complain of feeling sleepy during the day?
- Do you feel like you’ve been “running on fumes” lately?
- Has your appetite changed?
- Do you find yourself gaining weight?
- Do you struggle with insomnia?
- Do you get frequent colds?
- Do you have trouble falling asleep?
- Do you snore loudly?
- Do you grind your teeth?
- Do you suffer from daytime sleepiness?
The Problem With Night Guards
Back to night guards.
Night guards and other oral appliances aren’t always effective at protecting your teeth. In fact, many dentists believe that these devices actually contribute to sleep-disordered breathing. Why?
Most night guards used to treat bruxism are made for the upper arch. While they protect your teeth from the force of clenching, they actually reduce tongue space and can encourage the jaw to fall back, which can cut off the flow of air.
This can actually make you clench your teeth more. This is because your body’s involuntary response is to clench in order to clear the airway and kickstart breathing again. And while your teeth cannot physically touch because of your night guard, clenching still can put a ton of pressure on your jaw joints and the muscles and other tissues that surround them.
It’s important for dental professionals to screen for sleep-disordered breathing when patients come in, which includes identifying bruxism as a red flag. Also, your dentist needs to recognize that night guards are not a cure, but rather a Band-Aid for the larger problem of obstructive sleep apnea and other sleep-disordered breathing conditions.
If you think you might be suffering from sleep apnea, talk to us or a sleep specialist about getting an overnight sleep study done. It will help determine if you need treatment.
Treating Sleep Apnea for Good
Getting to the root cause of your sleep apnea is key to treating this condition. Schedule a consultation with us today.