Why We Grind Our Teeth: A Lifesaving Mechanism?

Bruxism

Mouth grinding is a habit that occurs during deep sleep, meaning many may be unaware that they even do it. Usually it takes a spouse or a loved one of someone that grinds their teeth to be able to notice it in the night. Also known as bruxism, this is a condition that can go unnoticed for long periods of time and is more common in children than adults.

Symptoms may include but are not limited to: tooth pain, jaw soreness or clicking, molars appearing to be worn flat, enamel wear, and headaches.

Chances are a dentist will be able to perform an examination to tell whether grinding is occurring. It is reported that over 10% of adults and 15% of children grind their teeth; yet it was not until recent years that doctors have actually discovered why.

It used to be a common misconception to link bruxism to stress or anger in the same context as we feel it during the day. Naturally, it can be a natural human response to consciously clench our teeth when we are mad or feeling intensely about something; and while this can happen while we sleep, it is found to actually be more than likely linked to what is called “obstructive sleep apnea”: a disorder that cuts off breathing for anywhere from 10-30 seconds during sleep.

How it Happens

While we sleep, we drift in and out of REM and NREM cycles. These stand for “Rapid Eye Movement” and “Non Rapid Eye Movement” which represent the depth of the levels of which the mind and body rest. As our sleep and rest deepens, all of our muscles relax completely. This includes the neck, jaw, mouth, and tongue. Now, when all of these muscles are completely slack it can actually block the opening of the trachea, closing off our airways!

To counteract this, the body is brilliantly designed to begin grinding. Why? Clenching the jaw is our body’s natural response because it tenses up muscles just enough to clear whatever is preventing air from freely passing through. When the muscles tighten, it reopens the airway!

The sudden obstruction, grinding, and then release unfortunately pulls us out of that deep sleep cycle and into the first stage of NREM (the lightest sleep), disrupting the cycle without the person perhaps even realizing it.

Despite the negativity surrounding bruxism, it is true that is could very well be preventing this form of sleep apnea and allowing air to pass through to the lungs even in the deepest sleep.

Mouth guards might seem like the best solution but in truth can actually make breathing more difficult. It would treat the symptom (teeth grinding) but it would not solve the initial problem.

Sleep apnea is often found to be more prominent in:

  • People with anxiety and depression
  • Children with ADHD and other learning disabilities
  • Children and adults who did not breastfeed as infants for very long or at all
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PC: Randen Pederson

Solutions

If your teeth grinding is becoming more of an issue, talk to your doctor about sleep apnea. When REM occurs, it is in the stages of the night where our skin and brain cells are replenished, our HGH (human growth hormone) is released, it boosts memory, and helps us burn fat. Sleep apnea disrupts this cycle which can lead to weight gain, heart disease and stroke. Children with sleep apnea were reported to struggle with hyperactivity, lack of focus, issues communicating, trouble adjusting to new environments, and in general received lower grades. Remember, just because you are getting an 8-10 hour rest does not always mean that this it is a wholesome, uninterrupted sleep. The good news is that most children outgrow their sleep apnea as well as their grinding, leaving little to no lasting damage on their teeth.

In a recent study, patients were given a CPAP machine (a treatment often used in severe cases of sleep apnea) or an oral device used to adjust placement in the mouth to make breathing easier. Not only did their sleep apnea stop, but so did the bruxism. Check for signs of your children grinding their teeth – chances are if it is a regular occurrence, they are not getting the sleep they need.

While grinding our teeth could be saving your life every night, it can have a long-term effect on one’s overall health. If you are concerned your child may have obstructive sleep apnea, or you yourself have it and you are concerned about your long-term health, talk to your doctor or pediatrician about steps you can take towards treatment.  If the grinding persists and there is a legitimate concern about worn-down enamel, talk to your dentist about a safe mouth guard he or she would recommend.