Stress is a fact of life- there’s no getting around it. Most adults experience some kind of stress every day either from the larger stressors that can come from our jobs, our family lives, or a time of crisis, little run-of-the-mill stressors such as sitting in traffic or an annoying phone call.
Some people manage their stress in healthy ways such as through exercise and positive visualization and others in less healthy ways such as through over eating or smoking. But no matter how people handle their stress during their waking hours, how their bodies experience stress during sleep is a whole other story.
When we’re asleep, our bodies often continue to experience the residual stress leftover from the day. One of the most common ways our bodies experience stress during sleep is through teeth grinding or pressing our teeth together.
The repetitive or compulsive act of moving the jaw or grinding or pressing the teeth together in sleep is called bruxism. Bruxism is very common but also slightly unpleasant- rather than awake feeling refreshed, we often get up in the morning with a mild headache or feeling tension in the jaw, the hinge of the jaw, or even in the neck.
Bruxism is a sneaky condition; because the grinding or pressing happens almost entirely in sleep, not everyone knows she’s doing it. For those of us who lead busy lives, when we wake up, we spring into our day and often don’t pause to notice the signals our body is giving us. We might feel a tightness in the jaw or a stiff neck, but we rub the area and keep going.
For most adults, bruxism is mostly annoying, though if left untreated it can cause a wearing of the dentition, which opens us up to a host of other future issues. Fortunately during regular hygiene appointments, your dentist will notice any wear and can identify signs of bruxism easily. Bite plates can be worn during sleep, and these are very effective in helping protect the teeth against further wear. Other treatments are available that address the source of the grinding and the body’s response to it: therapy, exercise, meditation, deep breathing and visualization are some excellent stress reducers that can safely and effectively reduce stress and the body’s need to find an outlet during sleep.
Interestingly, even though children don’t have the same stressors as adults, they are equal candidates for bruxism, particularly those who are six years old or younger. In their case, however, bruxism isn’t typically due to stress; rather, the grinding or pressing is largely their body’s response to physiological issues. For example, if their growing adult teeth are causing some discomfort below the gum line as they make their way down toward the surface, or if the adult teeth are pressing up against the existing baby teeth, children may grind their teeth to alleviate whatever pain they may be experiencing. Children also have narrow air passages and grinding may simply be their body’s way of making more room for air.
Children may not be able to verbalize a tightness in the jaw or headache as well as an adult, and often if they do experience bruxism, it is identified either when the parents happen to hear or see the child grinding in sleep, or by the dentist during a routine exam or hygiene appointment. When the dentist does notice effects of bruxism, she will identify that the child’s baby teeth look work down, and while it is often a surprise and source of worry for the parents, it is treatable.
While the causes for bruxism in children are well known, documented, and researched, some controversy still exists in the dental community as to what the best course of action is for treating the condition. Bruxism in children is typically due to physiological factors, yet it can still occasionally be caused by stress. The source of the grinding first needs to be identified in order to best treat the condition. If there is obvious stress or anxiety in the child’s life, it is important to get the child some help from a therapist or psychologist trained in stress and anxiety in children. Talking through the anxious situations or fears with a professional can usually help the child find alternative and healthy ways to help himself feel less anxious and more in control. The child may not even be aware that he is feeling stress, and speaking to a mental health professional could help the child explore his life and find productive ways to feel about his circumstances.
As far as the child’s future tooth health, it is best to continue to regularly visit the dentist to ensure that the damage is being managed and no further wear is occurring. In some situations, the dentist may recommend other courses of action, particularly if the occlusion in the child is imbalanced. It is often the case in children that the neuromuscular system is simply not mature and needs more time to organize its movement. Your dentist will listen to your concerns and check your child’s dentition while paying attention to how the child breathes through the mouth. The dentist may also ask you to observe the child in sleep to see if you are able to detect any abnormalities of breathing or other physical issues such as tossing and turning or nail biting which would indicate stress as the most probable cause for the grinding.
It is important to remember that bruxism is extremely common and also quite treatable, especially in children. The sooner it is identified the better, which is why it is important you continue to visit your dentist regularly for check ups and hygiene appointments. Doing this will ensure healthy teeth and a healthy, relaxed body for a lifetime.