Avoiding the nightly grind

Clenching teeth damages dental health

Clenching teeth damages dental health

December 06, 2004|by KATE COLEMAN

Chew on this: About one in three people suffers from bruxism, the technical term for grinding and clenching teeth, biting down too hard at inappropriate times - such as during sleep.

That's according to the Web site of the Academy of General Dentistry at

You might be a "bruxer" and not even know it.

But you should.

Bruxism can lead to an array of problems, tooth sensitivity, headaches, and jaw pain and dysfunction among them, said Dr. Melvin Pierson, a spokesman for the academy, the 37,000-dentist-member-Chicago-based organization which works to educate the public about dentistry.

Dentists can see the evidence, and Pierson said the habit is one reason why a dental checkup at least every six months is recommended.


Teeth are normally curved and rounded - with nice peaks and valleys, Pierson said.

Grinding or clenching can wear down the tooth's enamel, its thin, outermost layer. When the next layer - the dentin - is exposed, sensitivity can result, Pierson said. There are different levels of bruxism, said Dr. J. Bruce Burley, a dentist in practice in Hagers-town. Burley has seen teeth worn flat in places. In such instances, the tooth surface is shiny - almost glass-smooth, he said. In extreme cases, grinders wear teeth down to the gum.

Pierson also said that dentists are finding more people who are grinding and clenching during the day.

"It is stress-related," Burley said.

"It's just the world we live in," Pierson said.

Pierson doesn't grind his teeth at night, but he's found himself clenching in traffic. In situations during which he's learned he'll clench, he wears a custom-made clear acrylic appliance that provides a cushion between the top and bottom teeth.

The device is commonly called a night guard, which really is a misnomer, Pierson said.

It's just 1 millimeter thick; it's not like an athletic mouthpiece, he added.

Pierson also wears his appliance when he goes to the gym - when he's lifting weights and knows he'll be clenching his teeth.

There are other types of appliances designed to keep people from damaging their teeth by grinding or clenching. It's really just a matter of preference, Pierson said.

Burley customizes a device that fits over the two front teeth. Its name - Nociceptive Trigeminal Inhibition Tension Suppression System - is a mouthful. Two of Burley's hygienists wear the device and have been helped by it.

Hygienist Cindy McGee, a "grinder" all her life, had resultant temporomandibular joint (TMJ) problems and facial muscle aches and pains.

"I tend to clench when I'm stressed," said hygienist Sue Lilly. "I drove my husband crazy."

The NTI-tss device also received U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for preventive treatment of migraine pain and tension-type headaches. People have been able to reduce the amount of medication they take for migraine headaches, Burley said.

Over-the-counter devices are available, for as little as $10.99, but Pierson doesn't recommend them. He's a proponent of "go to the professional," and although devices made by dentists can cost hundreds of dollars, preventing damage is less expensive than treating it.

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