Waking Up With a Sore Jaw? You May Be Grinding Your Teeth

What might be causing it and what you can do

Waking Up With a Sore Jaw? You May Be Grinding Your Teeth

If your teeth hurt or your jaw is sore when you wake up, you’re likely grinding your teeth or clenching your jaw at night. Because you can develop long-term problems, it’s important to find out what’s going on.

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The behavior, known as bruxism, is not uncommon in children but is recognized more often in adults.

“We don’t have a good way to stop a patient from grinding at night,” says dentist Karyn Kahn, DDS. “All we can do is address the effects of the grinding and clenching and help reduce symptoms.”

Research has shown that bruxism originates in the central nervous system. Research also shows that taking antidepressants, especially SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), can lead to teeth grinding, as can anxiety and stress. Having a competitive personality, alcohol use, smoking and a family history may also play a role for some people.

Signs of nightly grinding/clenching

Talk to your dentist if you experience any of these symptoms of teeth grinding or jaw clenching:

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  • Grinding or clenching loud enough to wake your sleep partner
  • Flattened, fractured, chipped or loose teeth
  • Worn tooth enamel, exposing deeper layers
  • Increased tooth sensitivity
  • Jaw or face pain and soreness
  • Tired, tight jaw muscles
  • Earache-like pain in your head or face
  • Dull headaches beginning at the temples
  • Indentations/scalloping on the sides of your tongue
  • Clicking or popping of your temporomandibular joints (TMJ)

In the short term, grinding and clenching can damage your TMJ, the hinge joints connecting your lower jaw to your skull. Too much pressure resulting from muscle contraction in grinding/clenching can lead to popping, clicking, jaw locking, earaches, headaches and facial pain.

If the behavior continues, it can cause facial pain that is chronic (lasting more than six months), tooth fractures, daily headaches, migraines and chronic TMJ problems.

5 ways to reduce grinding frequency

  1. Cut back on caffeine (colas, coffee and chocolate), especially before bed.
  2. Avoid alcohol and smoking.
  3. Don’t chew on pens, pencils or other things that aren’t food.
  4. Don’t chew gum daily, because it can make existing pain worse.
  5. Avoid sleeping on your stomach or placing your hand on your jaw (back-sleeping is best)

Although there’s no way to stop grinding your teeth or clenching your jaw at night, “your dentist can fit you with a ‘nightguard’ by making custom impressions of your teeth,” says Dr. Kahn. “Dental fabricated nightguards are designed to provide a stable bite that does not interfere with a healthy, comfortable jaw closure.”

Adjustment of the device by a dentist can help reduce contraction of jaw muscles during bruxism, which may minimize jaw joint stress and protect tooth enamel.

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Over-the-counter mouthguards provide coverage only over the teeth, she notes.

What to do for daytime grinding/clenching

Daytime teeth grinding and jaw clenching are often unconscious behaviors, but you can train yourself not to do them, Dr. Kahn says.

The key is to maintain a proper mouth position. Whenever you think of it, keep your lips together with your teeth slightly apart, and rest your tongue against the back of your front teeth. Doing this eliminates jaw joint stress and stops you from grinding your teeth during the day.

“It’s a controllable habit, but many people are unaware of it,” Dr. Kahn says. “You can leave little sticky notes around for yourself that can remind you to unclench your jaw.”