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NHS figures show that bruxism affects more than six million of us, and can be a factor in some worrying health issues. Here's what the experts say:
"It's very easy to spot," confirms dentist Dr Uchenna Okoye, clinical director of the London Smiling Dental Group. "You can see immediately from how the teeth are worn down – ideally, you're able to see the tips of someone's front teeth when they talk, and often you can't in people who grind. There will also be tiny cracks and chips in the teeth that often pick up brown staining. Grinding wears the enamel down on the teeth and also weakens them, which can cause them to crack. It affects the appearance of the teeth, and they can also become very sensitive."
Grinding your teeth can also have an adverse effect on existing or imminent dental work, too. "Implants are less successful in patients who clench or grind," says Professor Humphris. "In fact, they're seven times more likely to fail under those circumstances."
Why people grind their teeth
Up to 70% of bruxism can be attributed to stress according to The Bruxation Association, with job-related stress being the most significant factor. It might also occur because new fillings are 'proud' – that is, not quite even – and so the bite is disturbed.
"You may be unconsciously trying to grind the new filling down so it's more comfortable," says Professor Humphris. Teeth-grinding is also more common in those who consume too much alcohol or caffeine, take recreational drugs such as ecstasy or cocaine or take medication for sleep, anxiety or depression (particularly a type of antidepressant known as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, or SSRIs). Those with sleep disorders such a snoring or sleep apnea are more prone to bruxism, too. Studies show that bruxism may be genetic – 21-50% of people who grind their teeth have a direct family member with the condition. And it doesn't just happen at night – 'awake' bruxism is less common than nocturnal bruxism, but it does exist, although is more likely to take the form of jaw or teeth clenching rather than grinding.
What to do about grinding your teeth
Some people aren't aware that they grind their teeth and only realize they do it because their (often long-suffering and sleepless) partner tells them. If you're having headaches, migraines, find your teeth are hypersensitive or even becoming wobbly, see your dentist, who will be able to confirm a bruxism diagnosis. "The most common form of treatment is to have what we call a Michigan splint fitted," says Dr Okoye. "This protects the teeth but it also helps to realign the jaw and retrain the jaw muscles to help prevent grinding long term, helping to break the habit."
A Michigan splint is a type of occlusal splint that's made of hard plastic and moulded to fit exactly over your upper or lower teeth. You can also buy mouthguards over-the-counter from a pharmacy, although these don't last as long and aren't as comfortable to wear. And while it's vital to make sure your teeth are protected if you grind them, it's also important to address the underlying root of your bruxism.
"Stress management techniques may help you relax before you go to bed, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps you change the way you think about and react to stressful events in your life, has been shown to be effective at reducing bruxism in some patients," says Professor Humphris.
If you clench or grind during the day, in response to stress or when you're concentrating, for instance, becoming more mindful of situations during which you grind your teeth can help you to break the habit. Encouragingly, a small study found that hypnosis significantly reduced tooth grinding at night, and the effects lasted as long as 36 months. "Bruxism is far from a minor health niggle," says Professor Humphris. "It can cause enormous discomfort and stress, and seriously affect quality of life. See your dentist for help sooner rather than later."