When I vocalized to the ELLE.com office that I was struggling with pain from grinding my teeth while I sleep—and thinking about getting botox in my jawline—my coworkers Ariana, Kat, and Madi immediately vocalized that they also suffer from jaw pain from unintentional grinding. “What is wrong with you people?” asked Nikki, our style director.
It made me wonder: What was wrong with us? Why was teeth grinding such a common complaint that, to me at least, popped up more and more in, say, the past 835 days, 9 hours, 29 minutes, and 51 seconds? I asked Jennifer P. Bassiur, the Director of the Center for Oral, Facial, and Head Pain and Assistant Professor of Dentistry at Columbia University College of Dental Medicine, about the common issue we had been experiencing and what it could possibly be tied to.
For starters, the clinical name for excessive teeth grinding or jaw clenching is called bruxism. Sleep bruxism is considered a sleep-related movement disorder and is very common in those who suffer from sleep apnea or other sleep issues.
I went into the conversation with Dr. Bassiur hoping to affirm my hunch that cases of bruxism have increased—particularly because of the current political climate. This wasn’t the case, as Dr. Bassiur hadn’t seen an uptick in patients suffering from the disorder and it had consistently affected eight percent of people, both male and female, equally. However, she did see a connection to stress.
“There’s nothing to say that it’s caused by stress — it’s not like stress is a causative factor for bruxism, but it is a risk indicator,” explained Dr. Bassiur. “So, anxiety and stress may not be causal, but there’s definitely a link between the amount of grinding that somebody’s doing and their anxiety and stress.”
The issue with bruxism lies in the fact that there is no real main cause we can point to. There are some physiologic conditions that will cause bruxism, like sleep apnea or medications, but just because two events (stress and bruxism) are occurring together, we can’t establish a cause-and-effect relationship.
Her best advice for preventing bruxism like my coworkers’ and mine was managing stress. “Managing stress and anxiety can certainly help, and making sure that you’re following what you need to for good sleep is important,” explained Dr. Bassiur. Avoiding screen time, meditating for as little as five minutes in the morning, or exercising for 30 minutes a day are all examples of stress relieving steps. If an individual’s bruxism is caused by a sleep disorder or medication, it’s best to have the disorder treated or weigh the risks and benefits of the given medication.
Sufferers should also invest in a mouth guard. While Dr. Bassiur notes that over-the-counter options can be a quick fix, she advises seeking a custom set from your dentist who is better qualified to identify the damage on your teeth.
As for botox for bruxism? It’s another short-term solution. “The evidence of Botox shows some temporary improvement,” explained Dr. Bassiur. “What Botox is going to do is weaken the muscles so you’re not going to be able to grind with as much force as you would be able to without the Botox.” She noted again that there is a risk-benefit issue as botox can weaken the muscles and, in severe cases, cause trouble chewing or speaking after continued use.
While we know correlation doesn’t prove causation and we can’t say stress is causing bruxism, Dr. Bassuir noted that new research is always looking at the ties of stress to excessive teeth grinding and jaw clenching.
“Right now, our only good way of knowing what happened is somebody complaining of it, but it’s all very subjective,” explained Bassuir. “The best thing you can do for bruxism is to seek medical attention from a dentist or an oral-facial pain specialist and have your symptoms evaluated.” And, if you think it’s adding stress to your life, turning off the news for a little probably won’t hurt.