Are you clenching or grinding your teeth?

Some authorities say that all primates grind their teeth to some extent. To the extent that it causes your teeth to get shorter, loosen, or become sensitive – this may be a bigger problem for you than you realize.

The act of clenching your teeth can produce as much force as 400 to 600 pounds per square inch of tooth surface.  This is like focusing the weight of a 400 pound block of iron to a tiny point on the floor, one inch square. To me, it is amazing that we do not spend all day, every day repairing teeth that have fractured under this kind of daily, unrelenting strain. Add in the fact that many adults over 40 have a mouthful of very old, very large silver fillings (These act like wedges in a log and often fracture teeth in half.) and you have a complexity of problems.

The first problem with Clenching and Grinding:

The constant stress of clenching or grinding wears down the enamel, causing the teeth to get shorter and shorter over the years. Eventually, many folks don’t show any teeth at all when they smile because they have lost as much as half their tooth length. (Look at an old high school picture to see how fast your teeth are wearing away.) This is not a noticeable problem. It happens molecule by molecule every day and often the nerve of the tooth recedes ahead of the damage so there is no pain.

But most significantly, once you wear through the enamel layer (about 1 ½ - 2 millimeters thick) you reach a layer of tooth called “dentin”.

The dentin wears 7 times faster than enamel, so… If it took you 20 years to wear through the enamel, it will only take you 3 years to wear through the same thickness of dentin. Things go down hill fast thereafter.

The best way to know how much enamel you have lost is to see a dentist who can show you, with an intra-oral camera, pictures of the edges of your teeth. If you see an outer rim of white (enamel) and a core color of yellowish (dentin) when you look at the top edges of your teeth, then you are looking at exposed dentin and things are deteriorating rapidly.

Anecdotally, I would guess that at least 25% of people clench or grind enough that it is (or will be) a huge functional and/or cosmetic setback in their dental health. It is often an extremely expensive and complex problem to solve.

As an aside, Dr. Lynda’s father (a well-thought of physician) did not see a dentist for 20 years and by the time he let Dr. Lynda restore his teeth he needed crowns on every tooth, many root canals and jaw joint therapy to open his bite back to it’s original position. Her dad did not appreciate the amount of “free” dental work he had received until someone took the time to add up the value of the work that was done. It came to $29,000. Yikes! Had he seen a dentist 10 years earlier, he may have needed only a quarter of that care.  

The other problem with clenching and grinding:

TMJ or Jaw Joint Pain can be the second problem that is often connected to clenching and grinding. People with frequent headaches, neck pain, ear pain, popping or clicking in the joint are likely to be damaging the jaw joint daily with the trauma associated with the same forces that wear away the teeth. The bone, cartilage, muscle and nerve tissue can be seriously damaged by the over use and tremendous forces generated by grinding and clenching. See our webpage about “TMJ or Jaw Joint” under FAQ.

In our office we recommend that all patients who have these habits and shows signs of deterioration should wear a specific kind of night splint called a “Dawson Splint”. This is a very carefully designed mouth appliance that our patients rave about. 90% of our patients who use the Dawson splint say they get amazingly more restful sleep and their grinding and clenching is reduced by 80%. These appliances last 2 to 6 years.

Drug store/Do it Yourself versions of TMJ splints should never be worn for more than a month. They may help you in an emergency, but they will always distort very quickly and cause your teeth to shift – making the problem much, much worse in the long run.

If you clench or grind (or your loved one does) you can contact us to learn more about your options and the extent of the damage that has already been done.