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Definition, Description, Causes and symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, Alternative treatment, Prognosis, Prevention

Bruxism is the habit of clenching and grinding the teeth. It most often occurs at night during sleep, but it may also occur during the day. It is an unconscious behavior, perhaps performed to release anxiety, aggression, or anger.


Bruxism is one of the oldest disorders known, and approximately one in four adults experiences it. Most people are not aware of it before their teeth have been damaged.

Causes and symptoms

While bruxism is typically associated with stress,it may also be triggered by abnormal occlusion (the way the upper and lower teeth fit together), or crooked or missing teeth.

Symptoms of bruxism include: dull headaches; sore and tired facial muscles; earaches; sensitive teeth; and locking, popping, and clicking of the jaw.

During a dental examination, a dentist may recognize damage resulting from bruxism, including: enamel loss from the chewing surfaces of teeth; flattened tooth surfaces; loosened teeth; and fractured teeth and fillings. Left untreated, bruxism may lead to tooth loss and jaw dysfunction.


Medical and dental histories and examinations are necessary to differentiate bruxism from other conditions that may cause similar pain, such as ear infections, dental infections, and temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction. However, uncommonly worn-down teeth strongly suggest a diagnosis of bruxism.


To prevent further damage to the teeth, bruxism is treated by placing a removable, custom-fitted plastic appliance called a night guard between the upper and lower teeth. Although the clenching and grinding behavior may continue, the teeth wear away the plastic instead of each other.

In some cases, abnormal occlusion may be adjusted and high spots removed so that the teeth fit together in a more comfortable position. Missing teeth may be replaced and crooked teeth may be straightened with orthodontic treatment to eliminate possible underlying causes of bruxism. In cases where jaw muscles are very tight, a dentist may prescribe muscle relaxants.

Alternative treatment

Stress management and behavior modification techniques may be useful to break the habit of clenching and teeth grinding. Tight jaw muscles may be relaxed by applying warm compresses to the sides of the face. Herbal muscle relaxants also can be helpful. Massage therapy and deep tissue realignment, including rolfing, can assist in releasing the clenching pattern. This is a more permanent alternative treatment for bruxism.


Bruxism may cause permanent damage to teeth and chronic jaw pain unless properly diagnosed and promptly treated. The behavior may be eliminated if its underlying causes are found and addressed.


Increased awareness in patients prone to anxiety, aggression, or anger may prevent the habit of bruxism from developing.



Academy of General Dentistry. Suite 1200, 211 East Chicago Ave., Chicago, IL 60611.(312) 440-4300. <http://www.agd.org>.

American Dental Association. 211 E. Chicago Ave., Chicago, IL 60611. (312) 440-2500. <http://www.ada.org>.

Bethany Thivierge


Enamel—The hard outermost surface of a tooth.

High spot—An area of a tooth or restoration that feels abnormal or uncomfortable because it hits its opposing tooth before other teeth meet.

Night guard—A removable, custom-fitted plastic appliance that fits between the upper and lower teeth to prevent them from grinding against each other.

Occlusion—The way upper and lower teeth fit together during biting and chewing.

Rolfing—Based on the belief that proper alignment of various parts of the body is necessary for physical and mental health, rolfing uses deep tissue massage and movement exercises in an attempt to bring the body into correct alignment.

Temporomandibular joint (TMJ)—The jaw joint formed by the mandible (lower jaw bone) moving against the temporal bone of the skull.

Additional topics

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