The enamel of your teeth is the hardest substance in the human body. But that doesn’t mean it can’t break.
Your teeth do a great job with materials that are softer than your enamel, which includes the vast majority of the foods we eat. But when your teeth encounter something with a greater hardness than the enamel (such as metal or stone), damage is almost unavoidable. The same can happen when your teeth are under undue and repeated pressure from an object with equal hardness — the exact kind of pressure you experience with teeth grinding.
Teeth grinding (also called bruxism) affects an estimated 40 million people in the United States alone. Yet only four out of every five people who do grind their teeth are aware they’re even doing it. Since the majority of grinders do their grinding at night, while they sleep, they may not even be aware there’s a problem until it’s too late.
A correct diagnosis of teeth grinding depends on a thorough dental examination; nighttime grinding leaves telltale signs of wear on your teeth, and your dentist should be able to spot these signs right away. Once the diagnosis is made, treatment can begin.
Treatment is generally aimed at stopping the grinding from damaging your teeth any further. Night mouth guards (special dental guards that are placed over your teeth while you sleep, protecting the enamel while letting you breathe freely) can arrest the damage caused by grinding, and allow your teeth to begin to recover. If the damage is already too extensive, your dentist may recommend extraction and replacement for overly-worn teeth.
Along with a dental checkup, there are a few other avenues of early detection. If you have a spouse, ask them if they’ve heard you grind your teeth at night. If you find your jaw popping or crackling when you open your mouth wide, you may be suffering from TMJ disorder, which can sometimes be caused by the stresses of excessive nighttime teeth grinding. New sensitivity to hot, cold, or sweet foods could also be an indicator that your enamel is wearing away.
Whatever clues you in, don’t ignore it. Your enamel, if properly cared for, can last you a lifetime. Give it every chance to do so, and see your dentist if you suspect you might be grinding at night. You’ll rest more easily if you do.