Bruxism and the Brain

Do you grind your teeth at night? Bruxism is the technical term for teeth grinding or teeth clenching that usually occurs in sleep. Bruxism may lead to jaw pain, shoulder pain, ear ache, and all sorts of other physical ailments.

Have you ever wondered why some people grind their teeth at night? Some people clench their jaw and grind their teeth during the day, but nocturnal or night-time bruxism is what I’m referring to right now. I know many people who grind their teeth in their sleep and they have to wear night guards to protect the enamel on their teeth. There are many theories behind nocturnal bruxism, but I doubt that anyone really knows why people grind their teeth. There may be a host of different reasons why certain people struggle with bruxism. Allow me to share my thoughts on some of the major theories behind unexplained bruxism.

Anger: There are many who think that people who have suppressed anger release their anger at night by grinding their feet. Does it make sense that people would clench and grind their teeth if they were trying to release their suppressed anger? Is the brain releasing anger by clenching teeth? Perhaps it is a natural reaction that cannot be controlled unless the anger someone gets eliminated. I wonder if some people have a chronic level of anger that never goes away. If anger is building up and growing, then it could take many years before the anger goes away. Maybe if some people are not in touch with their feelings, then they may not realize how much anger they have building up inside of themselves. It’s important for people to be connected with their feelings so that they can recognize their feelings and deal with them appropriately. Otherwise, suppressed emotions may express themselves in unusual ways.

Anxiety: Anxiety comes in various forms. For some, it is generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Others may have a combination of anxiety and depression. Anxiety may be suppressed or hidden in others. So, is bruxism a way the brain releases some of the tension caused by anxiety? Is it possible that the brain tries to escape anxiety by gnashing teeth? If my theory is correct, then people who receive treatment for their anxiety should have less bruxism. Does this happen?

Stress: Everyone experiences stress, but everyone doesn’t struggle with nocturnal bruxism. If some people live with a constant level of stress due to work or family problems, could this lead to bruxism? If people actively practice relaxation techniques, could this lead to a reduction in bruxism?

Mental trauma: Some people may encounter some type of severe mental trauma in their life. As a result, they may have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This type of mental trauma may manifest itself in different types of bodily symptoms ranging from headaches, body aches, and other types of ailments. At night, could this also be expressed through bruxism? Is it possible that the brain tries to escape this mental trauma by clenching the jaw?

In the future, perhaps we’ll understand what causes bruxism and discover a cure. Until that day arrives, we can only consider various theories offered by clinicians and researchers.

  • Good points. I would add the that there can also be a problem in the occlusion of the teeth. If they do not fit well onto each other, for instance if a filling is too high or the teeth are moving through the jaw, unconsciously people want to create harmony again. Unfortunately there are not many dentists who really understand the science of occlusion and articulation.

  • peachypie

    I have bruxism, and I can tell you I’m a really laid back person with just about no stress in my life (I’m quick to be happy again even when something just got me in a gribble mood). I do have a bit of an overbite (I forget the percentage the dentist told me, like 15% or something?), so… I mean, I don’t feel like I’m suppressing anything…

    I do know that on psilocybin mushrooms, I got very very aware of my upper jaw. I actually had to put my mouthguard in because my hand would be all up in my mouth checking out my upper teeth and playing with the roof of my mouth and I couldn’t get enough of it (what is all of this?! And hey, it feels nice to chomp and grind, nomnom! teeth are a strange part of me!) Had similar experience first time experiencing marijuana (hey my jaw is missing, ahhh!!)

    It’s not like I go into these things thinking about my mouth, you know? And yet it crops up during these times when I’m kinda not thinking straight (alcohol my mouth has never come up though).

  • lucky

    Could it be that a mental state may be altered (if only on a subconcious level) due to the use of narcotic drugs? This could explain your laid back attitude AND your bodys desperation to get something very harmful and foreign out of its system.

    • bubly

      Psilocybin and marijuana are not narcotics, nor are they toxic. they do tend to bring renewed attention to things you have become accustomed to (a mild irritant like a misfitting jaw perhaps), which may explain it.

  • jaybee

    .., this is a good post… very informative.. i never thought that even psychological state can contribute…

  • Chelsey

    I have GAD and since I started taking medicine for it I haven’t smashed my teeth together! It definitely helps, but I do catch myself doing it now and then.

Joseph Kim, MD, MPH

Joseph Kim, MD, MPH, is a physician, engineer, technologist, and avid writer. He enjoys writing about advances in technology that are revolutionizing healthcare. Dr. Kim studied engineering at MIT, then received his medical degree from the University of Arkansas College of Medicine. He also has a master’s degree in public health from the University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Public Health.

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