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What You Need to Know About Bruxism

Stress and anxiety can increase the chances of teeth grinding, but its origin also has been determined to be subconscious.

Article by Dr. Shohreh Sharif D.D.S., FAAPD, FICD

Originally published in Leesburg Lifestyle

Bruxism is the involuntary habitual grinding of teeth. This happens most often during sleep, but can also happen throughout the day. Many times, regular stressors like deadlines at work, the kids, or a leaking sink at home can cause you to grind your teeth. This last year has been no help. The pandemic has eclipsed the one-year mark and the economic, social and political uncertainty are more than enough to send that jaw into overdrive.

The human jaw can create around 200 pounds of force with a single bite. According to National Geographic that's one of the most powerful, relative to size, of all mammals! This means that our jaw muscles are so strong that any un-planned chewing or force could have serious side effects.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, dentists have reported an increase in emergencies as a result of tooth fractures. Often this is a result of bruxism–the technical term we use for any form of grinding, clenching or gritting of our teeth. Although stress and anxiety can increase the chances of this, its origin has been determined to be subconscious as well. Many times, people do not even realize it is happening until prompted by the dentist–then it all clicks.

Sleep studies indicate that grinding teeth is normal and a majority of people have three or four episodes where their chewing muscle, the masseter, clenches. This happens predominantly during non-REM sleep. These findings go against conventional wisdom that we grind our teeth when we are dreaming or in deep sleep. Light sleepers, who spend less time in their non-REM cycle, would be at a higher risk of bruxing.  One solution your dentist can provide is a custom night guard. Ask about it at your next visit.

Night guards are extremely helpful as they are made of a specialized material that acts as soft protection for your teeth. It is imperative that they be carefully customized according to the size and shape of your mouth. Also, your type of grinding, clenching or gritting should determine the material of your guard. Soft guards have been shown to help for clenchers, whereas a harder material helps grinders.

While night guards are a helpful treatment, it is also important to understand that bruxism is can be an airway issue, posture, stress, anxiety, eating before bed, caffeine intake, alcohol and sleep habits. Our tongue's natural position is on the top of our mouth. A night guard pushes up and out and strengthens the muscles of the face and neck. It widens the jaw and opens the airway.

When we sleep, we have become accustomed to soft cushioned pillows. These lead to our heads sinking and our mouths falling open which can sometimes lead to airway obstruction. Choosing firmer pillows gives more support. Also, there are exercises and stretching techniques you can do during the day that can help. In one exercise , you pull your head back into your neck and nod down until your chin touches the base of your throat. Squeezing your shoulder blades together is also beneficial. 

Pull Quote under DR. Photo:

Dr. Shohreh Sharif has been practicing dentistry for 25 years. She is:

Associate Professor, Howard University College of Dentistry

Diplomate, American Board of Pediatric Dentistry

Diplomate, American Orthodontic Society

IAD Top Pediatric Dentist among Leading Physicians of the World

Fellow, American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry

  • Dr. Shohreh Sharif, D.D.S., FAAPD, FICD