The grinding truth

Most people only realise they grind their teeth when told by an annoyed, kept-awake spouse or when they wake with a sore jaw, tight facial muscles, or a headache.

Teeth grinding, or bruxism as it’s officially known, is not only irritating for your partner, it can also affect your health.

“The biggest problem with teeth grinding,” says specialist dentist Dr Deks Dekenah, “is the direct damage to the teeth. Grinding wears the teeth short, breaks fillings, and you may develop jaw joint (TMJ) problems. The worst part is probably the headaches it causes during the day. If it’s not treated, some people eventually have to have extensive restorative work.”

Women also tend to look older when their front teeth have worn square and flat, he says. “They lose their shaped appearance, and that can be ageing.”

If you’re a tooth clencher and grinder, you might also experience pain in the neck and upper back, and if left untreated over a long period of time, jaw joint pain can develop into arthritis.

Why you do it
Identifying the cause of the problem will help you find the best solution.

If your problem is caused by jaw ligaments or tooth alignment, see an orthopaedic specialist or dentist. When the top and bottom rows of teeth do not meet properly (a condition called malocclusion), the jaw will shift around trying to find a “better bite”, says Lewis Gross, a holistic dentist.

“This constant movement can cause the jaw muscles to clench and wear down teeth,” he says.

Most dentists will recommend wearing a mouth guard or “bite plate” to bed. Ideally you need one that is custom-made, lightweight and comfortable to wear.

But, “if grinding is the result of unexpressed emotion — particularly anger — massage can have a dramatic impact, and it’s even more effective when combined with therapy,” says Ben Benjamin, massage therapist and author of Listen to Your Pain (Penguin).

Benjamin says that some of his patients find facial massage a little uncomfortable at first, so working in quick movements helps.

“Massage the entire head and neck to relax that part of the body,” he suggests.

Some self-massage techniques:

  • Lie on your side and rest your cheek on a tennis ball for two to three minutes. “The sustained pressure tricks the brain into relaxing the jaw muscles,” says Benjamin.
  • Another is to bite down gently on a cork for 5—10 minutes a day to ease tension in the jaw.

Letting go of anger
Psychotherapist Marc Sholes agrees that teeth grinding is often a way of dealing with tension.

“It may be that you’re trying to indirectly release aggressive feelings that you can’t unload without negative consequences,” he says.

If so, this could be an opportunity for personal growth.

“Ask yourself if any of your relationships is a source of tension; are unresolved issues causing you stress?” he suggests.

Writing down your answers can help you understand your feelings better — and yoga, meditation or breathing exercises can help release pent-up aggravation.

- (Joanne Lillie)

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