One of the most common involuntary repetitive muscle activities is called bruxism or teeth grinding. Most people are not aware of this habitual activity until someone points it out, or some damage is caused to the teeth, muscles, or joints of the mouth.
During stressful periods, tooth grinding increases as we have seen recently during the COVID pandemic, where dentists are reporting many more broken teeth, sensitive teeth, and jaw problems than just the year before. People release stress with tooth grinding, and there is some evidence that this habit increases brain blood flow for better cognition, and even releases endorphins to help cope with stressful anxiety or fear.
Of course, the habit continues during the night and can be worse at that time for your teeth since some of the protective sensations that are present during the day are not present during sleep. As a result, some of the worst damage can occur at night when unaware.
Some teeth grinding can be stimulated by sleep apnea or an uneven bite caused by missing or crowded teeth. Subconsciously the brain thinks the uneven teeth are food and tries to flatten the uneven surfaces by grinding away. This can be exacerbated by alcohol or tobacco use.
Besides chipped or broken teeth, symptoms can include over exercised and over developed (hypertrophied) jaw muscles, headaches, and sore jaws and teeth. Unusual wear patterns in the teeth are clues to the specific repetitive jaw motions exhibited during grinding. If some teeth are stressed enough, they may become inflamed or fractured and require crowns, or root canals, or may need to be removed.
A properly made custom fitted night guard by your dentist can help reduce the damage from nocturnal clenching and grinding. Alternative over the counter night guards are frequently bulky and uncomfortable.
When stress is a contributing cause finding a relaxation, method is advisable. Therapy, meditation, exercise, and proper diet can all help reduce stress and anxiety.
Children exhibit bruxism in different patterns than adults. Frequently from age 3 to 6, some children grind their teeth so much that their primary teeth are flattened. After the age of 6 until about 18 the pattern of grinding dissipates, and then it may worsen in college age young adults, sometimes resulting in TMD symptoms including muscle aches and jaws locking open or closed.
Other possible causes of teeth grinding in children may include irritation in the mouth, allergies, and misaligned teeth.
The repetitive stress of continual bruxing may stretch the inelastic ligaments that hold the jaw together and eventually may require surgery to correct this condition. So, try to voluntarily become conscious of clenching or grinding, and try to reduce the incidence when awake. Use a night guard at night when there is no voluntary control. Consult your dentist at the earliest opportunity to help control the damage that this involuntary habit causes.