Clenching occurs when you squeeze your teeth together over a sustained period of time. Grinding or bruxism, is the clenching of your teeth along with right-to-left and back and forth movement of your lower jaw that rubs the teeth together.
Why does it happen?
Clenching and grinding are habits that can occur while sleeping, while awake, or both. Many patients are not even aware they are doing it. This habit may be a response to a number of life’s situations, such as:
- Concentration/deep thought
- Athletic activity
Clenching and grinding: problems without pain
The medical term for grinding is bruxism. Some people have no pain following a night of bruxing and are completely unaware that they have developed this habit. Bruxers are usually told by a partner who has been awakened by an especially loud and intense episode.
The signs of wear are molars that have become flat, shortened front teeth, and front teeth that appear flat, chipped, thin, or indented. Your dentist can see the wear on your teeth, as the signs of bruxism are quite vivid. While grinding occurs predominately during sleep, clenching can occur while sleeping or awake. Your dentist may recommend a “nightguard” to prevent any further damage to your teeth.
Clenching and grinding: the onset of pain
When simple bruxism or clenching becomes a chronic problem and pain develops, patients may complain of “TMJ.” When questioned where they are experiencing the pain, they may put their hands on their cheeks and/or describe difficulty in opening and closing the mouth. This area is the masseter muscle (found on the side of the face from the cheekbone to the edge of the lower jaw), and it is one of the muscles that hold the mouth closed.
Neuromuscular headaches, often misdiagnosed as migraines, can also be a symptom of clenching. When questioned where they experience the pain of their headaches, patients’ hands often go directly to their temples.
Your dentist may once again recommend a night guard. This appliance prevents the full contraction of these muscles, reducing pain on awakening. (see TMJ/TMD.)