Bruxism: Habit or Disease?

Some people think of tooth grinding and clenching (bruxism) as a disease, and some people think of it as a habit, so which is it? The answer may be different for different people. For a small fraction of people, nighttime incidents of teeth grinding and clenching stem from seizure-like neurological incidents in the brain. Since such incidents are outside conscious control and probably outside even subconscious control, it is certainly reasonable to think of that (rare) type of tooth grinding and clenching as a disease, but what about more “normal” tooth grinding and clenching.

While “normal” tooth grinding and clenching could be thought of in the beginning as a “response” to something (like an unusually tense time, perhaps brought on by financial stress or job stress or relationship stress), for many people the action of tooth grinding and clenching becomes a habit. A habit can be thought of as a cycle of behavior that becomes self-sustaining. Our brains are wired to reduce behaviors to habits. Sometimes that’s a good thing, and sometimes it’s not.

When you are learning to drive a car, none of the sets of actions and reactions that make up driving a car have become a habit yet, so in the beginning, it seems overwhelming all the things that you have to pay attention to as you drive a car. Eventually many of the actions of driving become habits. How we behave at stop signs becomes a habit. What we do when we change lanes becomes a habit. Whether we put on our seat belt becomes a habit.

So how do you find out if your tooth grinding is a habit or a disease? Some people go to great expense to have tests done or try various drugs which can treat different diseases that can cause tooth grinding. Other people try a few simple experiments first and figure it out quite successfully on their own. If you are fortunate enough to have insurance that will pay for you to be studied in a sleep lab (and if you have the patience to be hooked to EMG and EEG monitors at night through a bunch of wires that are glued to your head), you may be able to find out if your nighttime tooth grinding comes from epileptic misfiring in your brain.

If you think your nighttime tooth grinding and clenching has become a habit, one way to prove it is a habit is to try different habit-changing methods and find one that works. For some people, sleeping on a different bed or getting a mattress-topper pad is enough to interrupt the habit. For others, wearing a particular type of mouth guard may interrupt the habit. Of course, and you experiment with different things to interrupt the habit, you may find some things that make the habit worse.

A front-teeth-only mouth guard like the NTI may interrupt the habit in some people and make it worse in others. An inexpensive hot-water-moldable mouth guard from a pharmacy may interrupt the habit for some people and make it worse for others. If you want to measure what makes your grinding or clenching better and what makes it worse, you can use an EMG-measuring headband like the SleepGuard headband to measure how you do with different mouth guards. EMG can also be used in biofeedback mode as another way to help interrupt the habit.

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