Why Subconsciously Clenching Your Teeth Is Worse Than You Think

woman clenching her teeth

Do you wake up in the morning feeling pain in your teeth and jaw? Do friends and coworkers notice grinding or popping noises coming from your mouth when you eat?  It is more common than one would think, and the worst part is, most people clench and grind their teeth subconsciously when they are sleeping

Clenching is not only causing you pain in your temporomandibular joint, or TMJ, which is the chewing muscles and joints that connect your skull to your lower jaw. It can also wear down your enamel, which could contribute to another set of issues for your pearly whites.

Enamel is the thin, outer covering of your teeth, protecting them like a shell from chewing, biting and chemicals. It is the hardest tissue in your body, and it is also what keeps your teeth strong, white and healthy. It contains no live cells, so once it is gone, it is unable to repair itself.

Clenching and grinding most commonly occurs when people are asleep.  Here are a few common symptoms and signs to look for if you are experiencing pain around your TMJ, headaches, neck and ear pain, and wearing or breaking down your teeth.

Teeth can chip. Once your enamel starts to go, so does the strength of your teeth, making them prone to chipping or breaking. Ouch. Do not be mistaken: This can happen to your front teeth, too, because people clench on their incisal biting edges.  A common clinical sign of grinding your teeth is simply a flattening of the edges or surfaces of your teeth.  Grinding causes us to wear away the enamel on the chewing surfaces of our teeth.  We may even develop small holes on the chewing surfaces referred to as wear facets.

Teeth can become hypersensitive. A lack of enamel on biting surfaces and abfraction lesions (defined below) can make teeth significantly more sensitive to temperature changes, specifically cold. Some people even develop sensitivity to biting and chewing on things.

Your teeth appear yellow. Enamel is what keeps your teeth white. Yellowing results from the dentin — a tissue which exists beneath your white enamel — that ends up showing through disintegrated enamel tissue.

One way dentists determine whether or not your TMJ pain can be attributed to teeth clenching is by examining your teeth for abfraction lesions. These appear to be nearly identical to abrasion lesions, but the two have different causes. Mistaking one for the other can mean a patient receives improper treatment advice.

1. Abfraction lesions: These are triangular-shaped grooves along the teeth on the gum line. Abfraction lesions happen because you are clenching hard, and therefore flexing your teeth. Flexing is the movement that occurs during clenching and grinding, leading to gum and bone wear, which ultimately results in abfraction lesions.

 Clenching leads to flexing, which leads to abfractions
Source: Inside Dentistry, June 2011, Volume 7, Issue 6

2. Abrasion lesions: Unlike abfraction lesions, which occur because of clenching teeth, abrasion lesions result from external wear — from brushing your teeth too hard, for example. Similar to abfraction lesions, abrasions mean some loss in tooth structure, and can result in the disintegration of enamel. Altering hygienic habits is crucial to avoid further progression.

Your dentist will be able to differentiate between the two types of lesions, and able to tell you if there are other signs of clenching damage to your teeth and joint (TMJ).

When a patient is clenching, grinding or breaking teeth, a night guard is recommended.  Click here for more information about night guards, including how to find the right fit, and how to take care of it.

It is important to take precaution when it comes to subconscious teeth clenching, because it can interfere with your dental health. To prevent TMJ pain and the loss of enamel, it is smart to wear a night guard, and to talk to your dentist about other ways to lessen risks associated with teeth clenching.

Additionally, if you are unsure if your night guard fits properly, bring it to my office.  For no cost, I can inspect your night guard. I can also make a custom-fitted guard to ensure a great fit!


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