Many Turn to Teeth Grinding for Stress Relief

Perpetual teeth grinders are in for a lifetime of pain, say dentists.


Aug. 27, 2008 — -- Sophie may seem like an otherwise carefree 25-year-old, but one look at her worn-down teeth proves otherwise.

"I grind my teeth at night because of stress," said Sophie, who asked that her real name not be used to protect her privacy.

And Sophie is not alone -- dentists told that they often see signs of bruxism, or teeth grinding, and treat the cracked teeth and jaw pain from people who clench their teeth too much.

"The past four or five months have been so stressful," said Sophie, who said her dentist recently pointed out the damage she's done to her teeth from grinding. "It's no coincidence that I grind."

Judy LaRosa, 51, knows how Sophie feels. She says she's been grinding her teeth for as long as she can remember.

"I wake up in the morning and my mouth is killing me," said LaRosa. "My teeth ache and my jaw hurts."

Studies have found that between 5 percent and 12 percent of people suffer from facial pain, known as tempormandibular joint and muscle disorder (TMJD), which is often caused by teeth grinding, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.

Dr. Harold Menschel, whose Florida-based dental practice The TMJ & Facial Pain Institute specializes in oral face pain, said that he's convinced the rising levels of stress have increased the number of cracked teeth he mends.

"People today don't have cavities anymore, and we have gum disease under control," said Menschel. "People instead [are] losing their teeth by wearing them down and cracking their teeth."

"It's a huge problem," said Menschel.

Grinding Your Teeth Can Cause Earaches, Headaches and Jaw Pain

The related muscles and joints in the face, said Menschel, are affected by the pressure that grinding teeth produces, often resulting in earaches and jaw pain.

"When you grind your teeth you're putting force on the system," said Menschel. "That can result in tooth pain and even headaches because they are all related to the nerve that governs the face."

At Dr. Kimberly Harms' private dental practice outside of Minneapolis, some of her baby boomer patients complain of symptoms that have resulted from a lifetime of grinding.

Stress, Harms said, is a "huge factor" of bruxism.

"From experience, when I had two teenage daughters at home I needed a high number of root canals," said Harms, who added that root canals are necessary when a cracked tooth -- in her case caused by grinding -- gets infected.

"Stress definitely causes bruxism to be more prominent," said Harms, who also acts as the American Dental Association's consumer adviser.

"I just had a patient who came in with a major crack say that she's been under a lot of stress," said Harms. "Patients recognize how stress causes them to grind."

And it's not just adults who are so stressed out that they ruin their teeth, said Harms. Children too have been known to grind down their baby teeth.

"There is some thought that ear infections and colds can cause kids to grind their teeth," she said. Children may deal with the pain by taking it out on their teeth.

To Cure Grinding, Dentists Suggest Relaxing

Some patients get a plastic mouth guard made to prevent grinding during the night.

"Night guards do protect the teeth and put the jaw in the good position while the person grinds," said The TMJ & Facial Pain Institute's Menschel, who also recommends relaxation therapy and even hypnosis.

Harms said that many dentists who can't get their patients to stop grinding and clenching will adjust the patients' bite to decrease the impact on their teeth.

"It's a very hard habit to break," said Harms.

Sophie says that her grinding problem has opened her eyes to how stressed she actually is and just how hard it is to stop.

"It's crazy to think that I'm that stressed," said Sophie. "I can't even control it -- especially if I'm doing it at night I'm doing damage to myself but I don't even realize it. It's frustrating."

LaRosa says her doctor's advice was nearly impossible to follow.

"He told me to avoid stress," she said, laughing.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events