Do you get inexplicable headaches that you suspect might be migraines? Is your neck so stiff you have all but stopped looking in one direction for fear of tearing something? Do you sometimes wake up with a weird, acute pain in your ear?
When I was told by the dentist that I was in the process of grinding my teeth to dust every night, my first reaction was stubborn denial. First of all, I had no jaw pain or tooth pain or any of the other pains one would definitely have if one were grinding (or “bruxing,” if you prefer the formal term). I also had reason to be suspicious of this dentist’s liberal diagnoses, as I’d never had a cavity before I started seeing her (a point of delirious pride), but now every cleaning brought with it news of a newly discovered nook or cranny she’d be charging me $80 to fill.
But then she asked me about the headaches—I’d been convinced that the dull throbbing I’d had in my temple for six months was something more obvious, like a brain tumor—and showed me photos of my teeth, ground smooth and ridgeless, more like fresh water pearls than molars. In short order I was fitted for a night guard, a massive hunk of acrylic that snaps onto my top teeth each night and has all the sex appeal of headgear.
When you understandably announce to everyone you know that you have just discovered you are a teeth grinder, you uncover a surprising number of fellow bruxers in your midst—bruxism’s incidence is estimated at 20-30 percent. This number is probably much lower than the actual figure, since there are likely a vast number of people who cannot believe that they are doing something totally unconsciously, while they sleep, that is going to leave them gumming their food by age 50, and therefore reject the diagnosis. But they do so at their peril: the force of grinding your teeth can be up to six times greater than your normal, run-of-the-mill biting, about 250 pounds per square inch. That’s a lot of force when you consider how tiny a tooth is.
Since I have come clean about being a grinder, I’ve met a woman who cracked all of her back teeth from bruxing; a six-year-old whose grinding is so loud his mom can hear it through the walls; a coworker who gnashes through three night guards a year; and countless others with bright plastic cases on their bedside tables in which their night guards sit, the adult equivalent of the neglected retainer. The most common reason given for teeth grinding is stress, but most bruxers I know reject this, insisting they have no more stress than the average person and furthermore they are not stressed all the time, but still they grind every night.
There is no upside of teeth grinding. It’s a particularly infuriating affliction, as the grinder has no idea she is doing it and no way to control it or make it stop. It’s a tiny, secret motion that goes on inside your mouth at night, a seemingly trifling habit that wreaks terrific havoc on your entire body—I’ve had pains as far afield as my hip from grinding my teeth. The only small comfort I take is in knowing that so many other people are bruxers. I imagine us all dutifully swallowing our Valerian Root (an alleged palliative), snapping in our night guards like boxers before the big fight, settling into our beds and biting down in unison, a silent army of fretful sleepers, jaws clenched tight for the duration.