Grinding Your Teeth at Night? The Cause May Surprise You

All people clench their teeth occasionally in response to anger, frustration, or distress. However, there are some people who clench and grind their teeth even without outside stressors, and often do so unconsciously. This involuntary tooth clenching and grinding is medically known as bruxism.

Occasional grinding of the teeth does little harm, but chronic bruxism can damage the teeth, and bring about headache, toothache, facial and jaw pain, and even TMJ disorders.

There are two kinds of bruxism, the first of which is called awake bruxism. This type of teeth grinding happens subconsciously while the person is awake. It happens when the person is stressed or absorbed in deep thought. This kind of bruxism is relatively easy to correct, since awareness is the first step to stopping teeth grinding.

Sleep bruxism, on the other hand, happens during sleep. Teeth grinding and gnashing usually occurs as the person is about to wake up. People with sleep bruxism are not usually aware of the condition, which makes it difficult to diagnose and treat. Most of the time, a person learns of the condition only after it is brought to their attention by a sleep partner, or by a dentist who sees the damage long-term grinding has caused on the teeth and the jaw.

If you suffer from sleep bruxism, there is a chance that you also suffer from sleep apnea.

The Bruxism – Sleep Apnea Connection

A number of studies show that many people with sleep bruxism, also suffer from obstructive sleep apnea; a disorder that is characterized by the repeated cessation of breathing during sleep. While not all OSA sufferers have bruxism, it was found that bruxism more commonly occurs in people with OSA, than patients who do not suffer from sleep apnea.

The connection between OSA and bruxism has yet to be fully explained, but sleep experts have come up with four possible associations between the two disorders:

  • Bruxism is Caused by OSA – One theory argues that teeth grinding is the body’s response to obstructive sleep apnea. During apneic episodes, the soft tissues at the back of the mouth collapse and block the airway, making breathing impossible. When this happens, the body reacts by making chewing motions that help open up the airway. This results in teeth grinding.

Some experts believe that the clenching and grinding movement, similar to chewing, helps in lubricating the muscles at the back of the throat, which become dry due to strained breathing.

  • Bruxism can Cause OSA – This hypothesis posits that: the mechanism that triggers a change in the heart rate, and the movement of the jaw muscles, is also responsible for the congestion of nasal passages, and restriction of the airway. Simply put, teeth grinding and gnashing results in apnea episodes.

This view is, however, less popular because in sleep studies of people with both OSA and bruxism, 75% of apneic events come before the teeth grinding episodes.

  • Bruxism and OSA are Not Directly Linked – This argument states that while bruxism and sleep apnea may be correlated, they occur independently from each other. They could instead, be related to another separate cause.

The premise of this theory is that there is no consistent pattern by which apnea events and teeth grinding episodes occur. According to studies, disrupted breathing usually comes before the teeth grinding, but it can also occur afterward.

Studies also show that not all apnea or teeth grinding episodes are preceded or followed by the other. If the relationship between the two disorders were causal, there would be a consistent pattern by which they would occur.

  • There is a Complex Link Between Bruxism and OSA – Sleep apnea involves not just the respiratory system, but also the nervous and cardiovascular systems, as well. Many factors can influence and give rise to the disorder, which includes genetic predisposition, environmental conditions, and even the anatomy, among others. The same is true with bruxism.

And because these two disorders are complex, it is argued that there is no direct relationship between them. They can both, however, occur in the same patients, but present themselves differently.

Living with Bruxism and OSA

Uncovering the real interconnection between obstructive sleep apnea and teeth grinding undoubtedly requires further research. It is, however, important to note that if you suffer from bruxism, then you could have sleep apnea. The bottom line: you need to get diagnosed and given the proper treatment.

Many treatment options are available for bruxism sufferers, including medication, mouth guards, splints, and stress management. If your bruxism is associated with OSA, then you will likely benefit from a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, or a portable CPAP model. This machine forces a steady stream of pressurized air through a tube, connected to a facial mask which you wear as you sleep. The air pressure works well, keeping your airway open. Effective and safe, many report an immediate improvement and with the portable CPAP, continuing to benefit while on the road and travel is now not only possible, but convenient.

Using such a cumbersome device can seem overwhelmingly difficult at first, but there are many CPAP machines, and stylized masks, available today, including smaller and lightweight portable CPAP models, that can be easily and conveniently used while traveling.