Life is a grind, and even more so for your teeth

Last Updated Dec 3, 2017 7:43 PM EST

Don't be surprised if in the middle of the night your spouse or partner rolls over and abruptly says, "Stop grinding your teeth!" This has become a major problem for the $111 billion dental industry, as well as for our pearly whites. Dental studies show our teeth may be increasingly ground into dust and decay by the "perpetual motion machine" of our jaws.

While exact figures are imprecise, it probably adds about $100 to an average annual dental bill. "In recent years the number of patients suffering from bruxism -- the medical term for grinding your teeth -- has increased significantly," according to one study.

Most people don't even realize they're grinding their teeth because it happens while they're sleeping, which is actually the most dangerous way. Grinding your teeth while asleep is often associated with REM sleep, or rapid eye movement, which can occur when you're having a dream that's "vivid, intense or violent."

Dentists say nearly everyone grinds their teeth, but only one in eight Americans will go to a dentist complaining of migraine-type headaches, chipped teeth, cracked fillings and jaws that actually "pop."

Others simply deny they're clinching their jaws and grinding. Dr. Matthew Messina, a professor at the Ohio State School of Dentistry, said one of his patients -- a salesman who's constantly on the road -- emphatically denied he was grinding his teeth and left the dentist's office in a huff. A few days later, Messina received a note: "I was driving, and someone cut me off. Then I looked in the rearview mirror. I was grinding!"

And therein lies the problem. People will go to the dentist to relieve head pain, but what many really need is a psychiatrist, or perhaps a career change. At least 70 percent of grinding issues are attributable to stress, according to the Colgate Oral Care Center, the Colgate-Palmolive (CL) website for dental health information.

The ways in which people tend to relieve stress, such as drinking alcohol in excess or smoking cigarettes, only doubles the likelihood of teeth grinding. Excess coffee drinking, which makes many people jittery, raises the odds by 1.5. The problem becomes even worse around the holidays due to the stress caused by shopping for gifts, traveling and family gatherings, which could include drinking during celebrations.

Dentists say they can easily identify people who've been grinding their teeth by the way they've almost literally been machined down "so they fit together like a jigsaw puzzle," said  Messina, who's also a consumer adviser for the American Dental Association. 

One study found a link between teeth grinding and the number of "chronic stressors in highly developed societies." It occurs most frequently during prime income-earning years from age 30 to 60. By combining careers with responsibilities at home, women have more stress and so are more susceptible to teeth grinding than men. Dentists now see children as young as 10 with bruxism, and up to a third of all children may be grinding, according to website WebMD.

Here's a yardstick for how serious teeth grinding can become. Normal chewing puts 68 pounds of pressure per square inch on your molars, and deliberate clenching of the jaw raises this to 150 pounds. But for those who unconsciously grind their teeth while sleeping, the pressure surges up to 900 pounds, or more than a month of normal wear.

The worst part: Not even knowing you're doing it until your jaw starts clicking and your fillings fall out. This is particularly true with "night grinding" because people are asleep when it happens, often for 40 minutes each hour. Sometimes the grinding noise wakes them. In other instances, someone sleeping alongside or nearby will be awoken, annoyed by the sound.

Not all grinding is due to stress. Sometimes it occurs when the bottom and top teeth aren't properly aligned or simply wear out. "We expect our adult teeth to last us from ages eight to 80," said Messina. "That's a long time."

So what can be done? Fixing the problem of teeth grinding can be relatively easy, if caught before it worsens. And sometimes it's relatively inexpensive. A good mouthpiece can solve night grinding. An orthodontist can fix unaligned teeth by moving them into proper position. Dentures can be adjusted. Even a better diet can help.

But stress is a more difficult problem. Routine exercise, yoga and meditation, and biofeedback could be the answer, according to medical professionals. But they emphatically say to avoid opioids if you're experiencing headaches. Dentists suggest putting your palms on both sides of your face and drawing them down to massage the jaw muscles.

"You have to break the habit that's causing the grinding and the pain before it becomes chronic," said Messina. If you can't, surgery may be the alternative.

  • Ed Leefeldt

    Ed Leefeldt is an award-winning investigative and business journalist who has worked for Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones, and contributed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is also the author of The Woman Who Rode the Wind, a novel about early flight.