True Confessions of a Teeth Grinder

Man tilted sideways grimacing in pain

It had been a long, terrible, no-good week. My boss kept asking if I could do one more thing. One thing led to 10 things, which led to a crazy amount of paperwork. I arrived early and left late, but my desk was still covered with mountains of paper. My eldest left for college on Saturday, so the weekend was stuffed with moving boxes, lost shoes, and tears.

On Sunday, I woke up with a headache. All week, I’d had dull pain in my temples when I woke up, but that morning, what started as dull pain worked itself to throbbing and sharp pain along my jaw. I just couldn’t shake it. At the end of the week, I was tired, stressed, and hurting.

I made it through the day, but Monday I had to call in sick. I thought about cancelling my six-month dental check-up, but I decided I’d better drag myself in, and I’m so thankful I did. After the examination, my dentist asked if I was stressed. No more than usual, I answered. Well, maybe a little more than usual. Then, he asked me something that caught my attention. “Do you know you’re grinding your teeth?”

Grinding my teeth? What was he talking about? I had no idea whether I did or not. And then, the moment of epiphany – the headaches and the jaw pain made sense. I started asking questions.

Why Do People Grind Their Teeth?

It turns out that many people, if not most, occasionally grind their teeth. Emotional causes, such as stress and anxiety, as well as physical causes like crooked teeth or an abnormal bite can make people clench and unclench their teeth at night. Experts call this kind of grinding bruxism, and it’s not too hard on your body. Most people, myself included, grind and clench their teeth from time to time, but when things get painful, it’s time to seek help.

When Does Teeth-Grinding Become Harmful?

Many people only know they’ve been grinding when they wake up with a headache or jaw pain. Even though I haven’t had any permanent negative effects from teeth-grinding, some people can lose teeth. Incessant grinding can really wear teeth down or even fracture them. At that point, dentists will recommend a variety of options: bridges, implants, dentures, etc.

How Can People Stop Grinding Their Teeth?

Ah, the big question: How do I stop grinding? My dentist recommended I wear a mouth guard at night, so I took him up on it and got fitted for one. It’s a decent option, but because the teeth-grinding is triggered by stress rather than a missing tooth, I really want to get to the underlying root cause. For some people, stress counseling or a prescription muscle relaxant really help. For others, cutting back on caffeine helps their bodies relax at night. Avoiding gnawing on pencils and chewing gum also trains your jaw to relax.

Personally, I’m not ready to give up my coffee, so I get up a little earlier in the mornings to do some yoga. I also use my lunch breaks for walks two to three times a week. My boss has agreed I can work one day from home. That alone has done plenty to reduce my stress levels. I still wear the mouth guard at night, but I no longer wake up with a headache.

Speaking from my own experience, if you notice pain in your jaw, ear or temples; you have damaged the inside of your cheek by chewing on it; or your sleep partner complains about your teeth-grinding during the night, I strongly recommend that you see your dentist to discuss your options before serious damage is done.

This is the fictional account of Jeff T. Cavitus, a stressed-out dad from West Palm Beach with tension headaches. After realizing that teeth grinding was his ultimate problem, he sought medical attention to fix it. He is now living happily at home as an empty nester. Jeff has recently taken up golf as a unique way to release his stress.