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Stress Is Grinding Down Our Teeth to the Gums

Editor’s Note: This article was first published on May 10, 2017.

First, the anecdotal evidence: Many dentists are noticing an increase in teeth grinding and clenching as a result of the general stress that most of us are currently feeling. “There’s always a high number of patients in my practice with bruxism [the technical name for teeth grinding] due to the fact that many are type-A business executives, or people in other high-stress jobs,” says Edward Alvarez, a dentist in Midtown Manhattan. “But I’ve seen a greater increase in the last few years, especially this past year with the election. I’ve also seen a rise [in bruxism] in college students — the number of night guards that I’m fabricating for patients has gone up dramatically.”

Next, the hard numbers: Nearly 90 percent of people will go through a period of grinding their teeth at some point in their life, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. And while traditionally only 5 percent of people will develop a clinical condition (i.e., it’s so extreme that it poses a danger to their health), again, it does seem to be happening now more than ever, per our friendly neighborhood dentists.

Nor does it appear likely that we’re gonna stop grinding anytime soon: According to the American Psychological Association, those aged 18–33 are both more stressed and less able to manage their stress than any other generation. But why must we take all that stress out on our teeth? What did they ever do to deserve all that pent-up anxiety? And are they completely fucked if we can’t find some chill — or at least get a night guard like Alvarez’s college-age patients?

Some answers…

What Teeth Grinding Actually Is

Bruxism typically breaks down into two categories, depending on if you do it as you sleep or while you’re awake. After a certain point, this tight clenching of the jaw or grinding of the teeth (holding the bottom teeth against the top, then rubbing back-and-forth or side-to-side with varying degrees of force and time) will lead to headaches, jaw pain and earaches.

Beyond general face pain, it can also flatten or chip your teeth. And in some cases, the constant exercise can bulk up the jaw muscles so much that it will change the shape of your face, according to Gary Glassman, a D.D.S at Endodontic Specialists.

Why You’re Doing It

The short answer: Stress. In 2010, during the peak of the U.S. financial crisis, the Chicago Dental Society reported that 65 percent of its members saw an increase in teeth grinding and jaw clenching among patients. Even more tellingly, a study published in Community Dentistry and Oral Epidemiology found that workers who were suffering stress due to dissatisfaction with their work schedule were more susceptible to bruxism than their less anxious colleagues.

Unfortunately, the way we tend to handle our stress is only making matters worse, since bruxism is further fueled by our stress-relieving vices of choice. A study by the ADA confirmed that cigarettes, alcohol, caffeine and lack of sleep are all strongly associated with bruxism. If being tired and stressed — then drinking coffee to wake up and booze to fall asleep — sounds familiar, your teeth are probably paying the price.

Why Teeth-Grinding Is the Body’s Response to Stress

Bruxism’s roots in stress run deep into the psyche. “Grinding is both psychological and physiological,” says Alvarez. “It’s something we’ve been taught — ‘just grit your teeth and bear it’ — so even on an unconscious level, we do it when stressed or unhappy.”

It’s also a physical response: High stress triggers the release of adrenaline, Alvarez adds. Adrenaline makes your body unconsciously prepare itself for physical confrontation, including clenching your teeth together to stabilize your jaw in anticipation of getting hit. Normally, when your jaw starts to accidentally clench, your body will subconsciously unclench it for you, but under stress, this reflex is inhibited. “If you consciously try to open it, you still can, but the subconscious protection is virtually gone, and therefore, there’s nothing to stop you from clenching,” says Alvarez. Instead, you end up in a similar situation to people on ecstasy, cocaine or methamphetamines, many of whom will helplessly grind their teeth when they “gurn”).

How to Stop

At present, there’s no effective treatment to eliminate bruxism permanently. Dentists will likely hook you up with a fitted mouth guard to wear when you sleep, or — less helpfully — simply recommend being less stressed.

With some conscious effort, however, the effects can be lessened. Those with waking bruxism, once alerted to the fact by a dentist, should be able to consciously stop themselves from clenching, although it will require constant vigilance, as your body will keep making you do it. A number of studies have found therapeutic remedies like meditation and controlled breathing help with this: Speaking to Vogue, acupuncturist and herbalist Sandra Lanshin Chiu claimed that left-nostril breathing — the practice of closing your right nostril and taking deep breaths through your left — can have the effect of expanding your diaphragm and relaxing your jaw muscles.

For more extreme cases, Glassman claims that Botox — which in this case is injected into the jaw muscles — will “effectively control uncomfortable symptoms and typically last for three to four months.” Your dentist might also prescribe a dose of muscle relaxers before bed.

The reality is, though, most of us will grind or clench our way through one of life’s shitty periods at one time or another — it’s just how we deal. But if it gets more frequent than that, it’s important to remember that, unlike weight gained from stress-eating an entire pizza, the damage from grinding your teeth away is permanent. That means either speaking to a dentist, or finding a way to manage your stress.

Never has nolite te bastardes carborundorum been such an appropriate expression.