A Sore Subject: Teeth Grinding and Muscle Stiffness

Too much exercise, too little exercise, the flu, a bad mattress, age. All of these things have been known to cause muscle stiffness, but you probably never even considered that your teeth could also be a contributing reason behind your body’s aches and pains.

How?  You ask -- from bruxism, which is the medical term for excessive teeth grinding and clenching.  It’s a fairly common condition estimated to affect 1 in 5 adults in the US at some point in their lives.  If left untreated, bruxism can have far reaching effects on your overall health -- well beyond the inside of your mouth.  Excessive teeth grinding can cause among other things, muscle stiffness and pain in the neck, back, shoulders, and face. Since most bruxism occurs during sleep, it often goes undetected and the connection between the two is almost never made.

Making the Connection

If you find yourself waking up with stiff and achy muscles in your neck, face, shoulders or back, it’s quite possible you’re grinding your teeth during sleep because  they all have a common denominator,  the temporomandibular joint, which is  known as 'TMJ' for short.

If you feel the back of your jaw, where it connects to your neck, and clench your teeth you'll feel your jaw muscles tighten. The masseter muscle (a facial muscle, used for chewing) sits alongside and works with other muscles along the face and neck. The major one - called the temporalis muscle - connects to your temple.   As the jaw tightens, your body reflexively tightens muscles around the neck, as the muscle groups from the jaw to the neck are interconnected. This is in an attempt to ensure proper support of your head and spine but the end result is neck, shoulder and back tension and muscle pain.  

The jaw is capable of exerting more than 250 pounds of pressure when clenching, and bruxism episodes can last up to 40 minutes of every hour of sleep!  This extra force can irritate the TMJ which connects the lower jaw (mandible) to the skull (temporal bone) in front of your ear.  Continued irritation of the TMJ will result in feeling pain in this area.  It can be TMJ pain, but it can also be nagging and persisting tension headaches. This is an early indicator of bruxism.

Stress is a Trigger

Even though the exact cause of bruxism is not fully understood, most experts agree that stress is a trigger and teeth grinding is a subconscious attempt by the human body to decrease stress levels. Once the stressful event has passed usually so does the teeth grinding but it can become a vicious cycle, because teeth grinding can disrupt your sleep causing stress which in turn causes you to grind your teeth more, and on and on it goes.

Long Term Effects

Besides causing nagging muscle aches and pains, habitual grinding can result in significant damage to your teeth. Over time, the friction from grinding wears down the protective layer of enamel  exposing the dentin  (the tissue containing hollow canals called tubules) making teeth sensitive to hot, cold or sticky foods, which for some can be extremely uncomfortable to eat, drink or even brush, an early warning sign of trouble. And eventually, the intense pressure from grinding can cause your teeth to crack, split, or fracture.  When you’ve reached this point, you might as well go ahead and set up a payment plan with your dentist because root canals, implants and bridges are in your future.  

And if that’s not bad enough, most bruxism sufferers also experience one or more secondary symptoms that can extend to pain in the areas of the eyes, mouth, throat, ear, jaw and neck, in addition to the headaches and tooth pain.

Who’s Most at Risk?

Bruxism affects men and women, young and old, across all races and socio-economic levels. However, for reasons not fully understood, women tend to grind their teeth more than men.

“Type A” Personality: As mentioned, bruxism is a stress related condition and people with higher levels of stress are more likely to grind their teeth as a stress reliever.

Heredity:  Several studies have shown that there is a strong link between heredity and bruxism, it tends to “run in the family”.

Lifestyle Choices: Prescription medications, tobacco, alcohol and caffeine intake have all been linked to a potential increase in the likelihood as well as the level of intensity of bruxism.

Abnormal Bite: Having an occlusal misalignment which means the teeth do not meet properly when the jaw closes has been linked to an increased likelihood of bruxism.

Treating Bruxism by Wearing a Dental Grind Guard

While there is no medication currently available to treat bruxism, dental experts agree the single most effective treatment is to wear a dental grind guard while sleeping. Dental grind guards unfortunately cannot reverse past damage but are effective in helping to prevent future damage and consequences.  Dental grind guards are removable and generally worn only when needed (i.e., at night or while sleeping).

There are many dental grind guards on the market, however custom-fit products by dentists are expensive and may require multiple visits.  Many off-the-shelf grind guards may not fit properly, can be easily chewed through, or their material composition may be simply uncomfortable to wear. 

Ora-GUARD® dental grind guard has quickly established itself as different from the rest with a revolutionary design that combines a soft, medical grade fit material to cushion the jaws during clenching, coupled with a patented bite plate wedge design specially constructed to slide the lower jaw down and forward, releasing tension on the TMJ muscle, while preventing tooth damage.