What is teeth grinding?
Also called bruxism, teeth grinding is the non-functional contact of the upper and lower teeth in a repetitive clenching or grinding pattern. It is normally the result of an unconscious contraction of the masseter and temporalis muscles, but this is not always the case.
Human upper and lower teeth typically glide together smoothly, and only touch when chewing food. The main issue with bruxism and this unnatural grinding or clenching, is that it can wear and crack the teeth. More seriously, it may also lead to impairment of the jaw.
Bruxism is split into two categories.
- During sleep (‘sleep bruxism’), known as nocturnal bruxism.
- While awake (‘awake bruxism’), known as diurnal bruxism.
Reasons for teeth grinding:
Bruxism or grinding of teeth is very common. It occurs in both children and adults. Here, however we specifically detail the wide range of psychological, physiological, and physical factors which can be the reason behind bruxism in children.
- It can be a learning process, with the grinding of teeth helping the baby to explore what their new teeth sound and feel like. For them, having teeth is a new feeling, and this grinding is generally seen when the baby is around 8 to 12 months old. Just as in how adults would rub a sore muscle to ease its pain, when babies are cutting their first teeth they sometimes grind them to ease sore gums. Usually babies outgrow this habit, but until they do so, giving the baby a cold teething ring to chew on will help mitigate the problem.
- Sometimes, baby grinding teeth is a natural reaction. It is the child’s response to growth and development and so it often can’t be prevented. Once the permanent teeth of the child start to erupt, a child gradually stops grinding their teeth.
- Some children grind their teeth in response to ear ache pain.
- Stress and anxiety can be a cause of bruxism in older infants and children. Emotional stress increases the release of adrenaline hormones. Studies show that people with bruxism have elevated levels of these hormones in their urine, when compared with control groups not displaying bruxism. Exam periods, relocating to new schools, nightmares, new siblings being born, arguments with siblings or parents, even weaning from breastfeeding, these experiences and more can cause anxiety in children.
It is important for parents to note that bruxism caused by stress or anxiety will not go away until the underlying cause of that stress is dealt with. If you think your child is grinding teeth because of stress or anxiety, it is important to talk through the issues with them where possible. Reassurance will help your child to deal with the stress. If this does not work, introduce stress-relieving activities such as warm baths, soothing music and bedtime stories. This can work wonders in relaxing infants and older children before sleep.
- Imperfect positioning of the teeth when the jaws are closed (malocclusion) also promotes teeth grinding. This can be due to abnormal alignment of upper and lower teeth, or jaw misalignment.
- Poor oral hygiene can be a root cause of bruxism also. Gum inflammation (Gingival inflammation), can lead to grinding and occurs predominantly in children who do not brush their teeth.
- Bruxism can be a side-effect of using some anti-depressant medications. The number of children taking antidepressants is on the increase, making this an important factor to consider when treating children with bruxism.
- If the onset of bruxism is sudden, evaluate the medications the child is taking. A switch to an alternate brand might be necessary.
- Stomach acid reflux into the oesophagus is another known cause of bruxism in children.
- Children with brain injuries and certain developmental disorders (eg, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and epilepsy) may be at particular risk of grinding. In such cases, the paediatric dentist may suggest botulism injections to calm the facial muscles, or provide a protective night-time mouthpiece.
- A wide array of medical issues can also be at the root of the problem. Everything from dehydration, to nutritional deficiencies, allergies, and even pinworm infections can lead to bruxism. Here are some specific medical issues that can cause bruxism:
- Dehydration is commonly linked with teeth grinding. So, ensure your child drinks plenty of water
- Nutritional deficiencies such as calcium and magnesium deficiencies
- Asthma and respiratory airway infections
- Hyperactivity is also associated with bruxism. In particular, there is an association between the amphetamines used for managing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and bruxism
- Parasites in the body
- In young children, teeth grinding may be due to the immaturity of the neuromuscular system (nerves and muscles) that control chewing
- Bruxism is prevalent in children who snore or breathe through their mouths. One theory suggests a correlation between nocturnal bruxism and upper airway obstruction. It happens more often in children that sleep on their backs. In this scenario the tongue can fall backwards during sleep, blocking the airway. This in turn deprives the brain of adequate oxygen. Enlarged tonsils can also cause upper airway obstruction, and in these instances, removing the tonsils and adenoids has been shown to reduce teeth grinding in children.
- Interestingly, parafunctional habits – of which bruxism is a prime example – seem to run in families. The bruxism cause may be a genetic one.
- Increased aggression in children as young as 5 or 6, can lead to bruxism.
Bruxism can lead to several other issues in children such as drooling, bed wetting, and talking during sleep. It is best to consult a dentist to find out the exact reason behind your child’s teeth grinding habit.