If you’ve noticed jaw tightness, are struggling through grueling TMJ (temporomandibular joint) pain, or find yourself massaging your jaw frequently, you may be grinding your teeth without even realizing it. And teeth grinding has become even more common amidst COVID-19 concerns, Parsley Health providers have found. Why?
The number one cause of teeth grinding is stress , says Sarah Steinberg, MD, PhD , a double board-certified physician in internal medicine and gastroenterology with Parsley Health.
Frequent headaches , earaches, or facial pain are some other clues that you’re suffering from the habit. If you don’t know that you’re clenching and grinding on the regular, your dentist should flag it as part of a routine dental exam. “They’ll see that some of your enamel looks worn off,” says Dr. Steinberg. If you suspect that you grind your teeth (also called bruxism), you can always broach the subject yourself and ask if they see any signs on your teeth.
If you’re a teeth grinder, you’ll also likely clench your jaw throughout the day in response to stress. Still not sure if that’s you? Bring the focus to your jaw and tell yourself to consciously relax—you may be surprised about the release that happens.
It’s common to carry your worries with you into bed, even if you think you’re in blissful slumber. “Our stress and worries do come back to us at night,” says Dr. Steinberg. “Sleep is restorative, but there’s no guarantee that your subconscious mind will stay in a happy place at night,” she says. Up to 31 percent of adults grind their teeth at night, points out a 2019 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health . That research found that higher rates of perceived stress were linked to nighttime teeth grinding. (Though not all research has found a clear link.) And your coping strategies for stress matter—the study found that women often used self-blame to cope with their stress, a maladaptive strategy that only exacerbates feelings of anxiety .
If you find yourself grinding your teeth at night, doing a body scan when you’re in bed before sleep can help. Start at your feet and tighten and release your toes. Work your way up your body, paying extra attention to areas like your low back, trapezius (the muscles in the upper back), neck, and jaw. Another issue: are you on your phone or tablet before bed? Staring at a screen puts your jaw, neck, and eye muscles under stress, which can contribute to overnight tension that drives you to grind, Dr. Steinberg says.
Stopping yourself from grinding is a three-phase approach, says Dr. Steinberg:
This can be done with a mouth guard. Talk to your dentist about what one might be right for you. Be aware, however, that the mouth guard isn’t a cure for the repetitive, ingrained habit. “Many people assume that a mouth guard will stop you from grinding. It doesn’t. It only protects your teeth from the effects of grinding,” says Dr. Steinberg.
A chiropractor can do manipulation that helps address TMJ pain and acupuncture may be another option. At home, you can also try self-massage. Practice this twist on the cow face yoga pose, which Dr. Steinberg has altered to specifically address jaw pain. To do it:
Parsley Health doctors and health coaches work with members experiencing teeth grinding to find the right pain relief option for them.
Once Dr. Steinberg has ruled out other causes of teeth grinding, like sleep disorders or a medication side effect, treatment comes down to focusing on stress reduction. Consider this your call to finally tackle your stress. “Teeth grinding is a red flag. It’s a sign from your body that stress is taking hold and you need to do something about it,” she says.
The thing with stress is that it will always be there. You don’t just “get rid of” your stressors. Take COVID-19, for instance. The global pandemic is a huge, pervasive source of stress that’s not going away any time soon. What you can control, however, is how you respond to stressors, says Dr. Steinberg.
Meditation and a body scan before bed can help, sure. But it’s not the answer for everyone. The key is to find the activities that you enjoy and help you find calm. That might be:
Stress-reduction is part of an ongoing process of knowing what works and consistently carving out time in your day to do those things. “It’s a commitment,” says Dr. Steinberg, but it’s worth it.
When stressed, it’s really easy to forget that you need to build stress-reducing activities into your life. Things are chaotic. Everything seems like it’s on fire. That’s where the unconscious habit of teeth grinding can sneak in. Parsley’s health coaches work with members to develop a stress management routine and hold them accountable to it. They’ll also work with you to find healthy coping strategies, like positive reframing and acceptance.
Keep a running list of all of the stress-reduction strategies that you enjoy, and include a mix of things depending on the time and resources you have available at the moment, like a five-minute break (to sit down to a glass of ice water) or a 30-minute window (to put on your shoes and run outside). Start tackling your stress every day head-on and watch the side effects—like teeth grinding—well, grind to a halt.
Jessica Migala is a health and medical freelance writer living in the Chicago suburbs. She's written for publications like Women's Health, Health, AARP, Eating Well, Everyday Health, and Diabetic Living. Jessica has two young, very active boys.
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