Teeth grinding, also known as bruxism, is a common condition that affects nearly 1 in 5 adults in the US. Most medical experts agree that bruxism is triggered by stress as it is a way for the body to unconsciously decrease stress and anxiety levels. On the surface, bruxism doesn’t seem all that serious however, what makes teeth grinding somewhat more complicated is that it usually occurs during sleep so it often goes undetected. When left untreated, it can have far reaching and seemingly unrelated symptoms that can significantly impact your quality of your life, ear problems, such as tinnitus, is one such symptom.
What is Tinnitus?
Tinnitus or ringing in the ears, is just that -- the sensation of hearing ringing, buzzing, hissing, whistling, or other sounds in your ears. While not everyone who grinds their teeth will get tinnitus, it is a by-product of bruxism that you should be aware of because it can be quite disruptive. The noise you hear can be intermittent or continuous and is often worse when it is quiet, so you may experience it more at night when you're trying to fall asleep. Tinnitus can present itself randomly, or these sounds can be heard all of the time.
How are Tinnitus and Teeth Grinding Related?
The ringing sounds are caused by your bone structure responding to the force of teeth grinding and clenching. Because the jaw is capable of exerting more than 250 pounds of force when grinding (powerful enough to crack a walnut) it can cause significant distress on your temporomandibular joints which are found on both sides of the head. This joint lives in front of the ears where the lower jawbone connects with the skull. When pressure is put on the joint it radiates into the ears since they are so close. The more you grind and clench your teeth, the more ringing you’ll hear in your ears.
For most people, tinnitus is just a temporary annoyance. However, in severe cases, it can cause people to have difficulty concentrating and sleeping. It may eventually interfere with work and personal relationships, resulting in more long term issues.
Other Consequences of Teeth Grinding
In addition to tinnitus, over time, the intense pressure clenching can also cause teeth to crack, split, or fracture. When you’ve reached this point, the only treatment option is expensive and time consuming dental procedures such as root canals, implants, bridges, or dentures.
But the damage isn’t just limited to your teeth. Because clenching puts pressure on teeth to move down toward the roots, the gums recede causing bacteria pockets to form which can lead to other unintended consequences like increased plaque, infections and periodontal disease.
And if that’s not bad enough, 90% of bruxism sufferers also report experiencing one or more secondary symptoms that can potentially include migraine headaches, vertigo, hearing problems and laryngitis. But prevention is key to help reduce or eliminate the negative consequences of bruxism.
Early Indicators of Bruxism
Since bruxism can often go undetected, it’s important to know some of the early warning signs to be aware of like waking up with a sore jaw or dull headache. Also, your teeth can become hypersensitive to hot, cold, sticky foods or even to touch because the consistent grinding wears down the tooth’s protective enamel. Sleep disruption is another indicator, if you or your partner are being awaken at night by the unsettling sound of enamel grinding against enamel, there is most likely a problem.
Who’s Most at Risk?
Bruxism affects men and women, young and old, across all races and socio-economic levels. However, there are some additional factors that can increase your likelihood of suffering from bruxism.
The exact cause of bruxism is still not fully understood so there is currently no medication to treat it but there are some tips to help reduce its frequency and severity if you realize you are grinding your teeth or experiencing any early symptoms of bruxism.
Sounds funny but you can actually be guilty of coaxing your jaw into a clenching position. How? If you have a habit of chewing pens, pencils or chewing gum during the day as a way to alleviate stress, you may be getting your jaw muscles used to the 'art' of clenching. Chewing gum in excess of two hours per day encourages jaw muscles to clench which may increase your chances of grinding teeth when you are not chewing.
While there is no medication currently available to treat bruxism, dental experts agree that wearing a dental grind guard is the most effective treatment to mitigate symptoms and prevent permanent tooth damage.