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Teeth grinding (or bruxism) — which is caused by clenched jaw muscles — can happen day or night. But sleep bruxism is much harder to treat since many of us don’t even know we’re doing it. The condition is also often only detected when seeking treatment for symptoms like headaches, facial or jaw pain, or worn-down teeth — or if a bed partner notices the grinding sound. And ignoring it won’t make it go away — instead, that will oftentimes lead to serious oral issues, including loss of enamel, tooth sensitivity, and a proclivity for cavities, according to Dr. Rashmi Ambewadikar of Astoria Smiles Pediatric Dentistry.

Although teeth grinding was thought to be the result of jaw or teeth misalignment, Dr. Brent Larson, director of the division of orthodontics at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry, says, “We’ve learned that’s really not the case. People are wired to be grinders, and if they’re grinders, there are certain things that can make it worse.” Among these exacerbating factors are stress and anxiety, caffeine, alcohol, and certain medications. Dr. Michael Gelb, who treats patients with TMJ, headaches, or sleep disorders at the Gelb Center, says there is new research that an airway disorder could also cause clenching. Cosmetic dentist Dr. Lauren Becker shared the same sentiment, explaining that the lack of oxygen in airway obstruction or sleep-disordered breathing “causes the body to activate the sympathetic nervous system, causing the clenching or grinding to occur.” That’s why before going the night-guard route, it’s routine to check patients for breathing-related sleep disorders like sleep apnea or snoring since clenching could be a symptom of those things, too, according to Gelb.

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