Table of Content
Why Does Bruxism Cause Tinnitus (and What Can I Do About It)?
by Dylan Hao |
Did you know that when you have problems with your ear, the cause could stem from your jaw?
This is commonly seen when a toothache leads to ear pain, but complications in the jaw can also be what’s going on if you have ringing in your ears.
We all have that occasional but annoying sensation of hearing sounds that aren’t there. When that noise is persistent, happening randomly but repeatedly, it’s called “tinnitus.”
Since tinnitus is technically an “ear issue,” most people head to the ear specialist (the otorhinolaryngologist, to be precise). However, the condition isn’t always related to the ear, so the specialist will also check for signs of bruxism.
How does bruxism cause tinnitus? What can you do about it if you’re dealing with the signs of both? We’ll discuss those questions and the solutions in this guide.
Understanding Bruxism and Tinnitus
Bruxism is the official term for what is more commonly called teeth grinding. This simplified description minimizes the behavior, though, and makes it seem irritating rather than the potentially dangerous and painful condition it actually is.
The Dangers of Bruxing
Bruxing falls into two categories: awake and asleep.
Awake bruxing is typically less destructive. Why? Because it’s easy for you to notice and may even become painful, so you’ll stop.
Sleep bruxism, on the other hand, can go on for extended periods while you’re slumbering and aren’t noticing the activity.
Sleep bruxers not only grind their teeth, but they clench their jaws tightly for hours at a time. Go ahead and make a muscle with your biceps or your calves. Now, imagine holding that muscle in place for hours while also pushing hard against something. That’s what your jaw muscles do when you have bruxism.
Since the jaw is connected to the skull by a little hinge feature called the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), this delicate body part also sees plenty of damaging action when you’re grinding and clenching.
When overused, the joint becomes swollen or displaced, causing mild to severe pain and occasionally leading to tinnitus.
Subjective and Objective Tinnitus
Tinnitus is defined as a noise in your ears or head that doesn’t come from an external source. Most people who experience tinnitus describe it as a ringing sound, but it can also be buzzing, humming, whooshing, clicking, or any other noise without an outside cause.
You may have objective or subjective tinnitus:
- Objective occurs when someone else can hear the same noise you’re hearing coming from your ear canal.
- Subjective is when only you can hear the noise, which is more common.
Subjective tinnitus is not an actual medical condition. Instead, it is a symptom of another underlying issue, such as hearing loss, infection, or noise exposure. The sound you hear comes from your brain, not your ear.
Untreated and severe tinnitus is linked to:
- Lack of sleep
- Memory loss
- Depression or anxiety
Linking Bruxism, TMDs, and Tinnitus
So, if tinnitus isn’t a medical condition and it’s a symptom of something else, what could be causing your ringing?
Well, the most likely culprits are bruxism and temporomandibular disorders (TMDs). TMDs refer to a group of over 30 conditions that stem from the TMJ and cause pain and dysfunction in the jaw and the attached muscles.
These two conditions are the top causes of tinnitus. The auditory symptoms you hear occur because there’s a disruption in the connection between the TMJ and the auditory system caused by a misalignment in the jaw joint.
The TMJ is so precariously designed that any swelling or displacement can lead to pain and discomfort as far down your body as your back!
Excess pressure or tension on the nerves impacts normal functioning. When the nerves are compressed, the auditory signals the ear takes in don’t make it to the brain, causing various hearing-related issues, such as loss or ringing.
Other Causes of Tinnitus
TMJ tinnitus (caused by TMDs or bruxing) is one potential reason for your ringing ears. But there are many other possible causes. This article focuses on TMJ-based tinnitus.
However, if you don’t think your joint is causing the noises you hear and they don’t seem to be going away, schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider. Your tinnitus could stem from one of the following underlying conditions:
- Natural aging processes, in which case you may need a hearing exam
- Exposure to loud noise that damaged the hair cells in the inner ear
- A middle-ear infection
- Injury to the head or neck
- Emotional disorders
- An untreated medical condition such as Ménière's disease or diabetes
- An untreated dental problem
- Hearing loss
Your doctor will work with you to diagnose what’s causing your tinnitus or, depending on your symptoms, send you to a specialist who can treat the problem.
Symptoms of Bruxism and TMJ Tinnitus
How can you tell if the symptoms you’re experiencing are bruxism/TMJ-related tinnitus so you can focus on the correct treatment?
Studies show that when your symptoms of tinnitus change with jaw movement, it’s likely because of TMJ. Try moving your jaw when you notice the ringing in your ears. If it changes tone, volume, or pitch, it’s probably a symptom of your bruxism.
Each cause of tinnitus has its own unique symptoms that an expert can look for to get to the root of the problem. With TMJ tinnitus, other symptoms you may notice include:
- Perceived loss of hearing
- The sensation of fullness in the ear
- Otalgia (earache)
- Neck pain
- Morning headaches
- Tooth damage (grinding wears away your enamel)
- Facial pain
- Jaw pain
- Tooth sensitivity and soreness in the gums
When you have a few of these symptoms, along with the noise in your ear, it’s likely caused by a TMD or bruxism. The good news is that you might be able to skip the expensive ear doctor and see your primary care physician instead.
Medical Treatments for TMJ-Related Tinnitus
Understandably, if your symptoms aren’t ear-related, you don’t want to spend the time and money necessary to see a specialist. TMJ-related tinnitus is treated distinctly differently than if the condition has an ear pathology.
Not all patients will need medical treatment. It’s possible to treat bruxism symptoms like ear ringing at home, which we’ll discuss in the next section.
However, if the tinnitus isn’t going away, your doctor may suggest one of the following treatment options:
- Medications — This may include muscle relaxants and antidepressants.
- Dental treatments — Correct any underlying issues with the teeth, like sealants for cavities, crowns, root canals, or other dentistry fixes.
- Night guards and splints — Minimize the strain on the TMJ, jaw muscles, and teeth.
- Oral splints — Realign the eardrum, which is necessary for certain severe TMJ disorders.
- Physical therapy — Stretch and strengthen jaw muscles.
- Corticosteroid injections into the joint — Relieve inflammation and pain.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy — Learn how to handle stress, which is a major contributor to bruxism.
You are unique, and so is your tinnitus issue, so there isn’t a one-size-fits-all treatment plan to fix this problem. But when you’re working with a professional who handles bruxism/TMJ-tinnitus conditions regularly, together, you can find the therapies that work for you.
In the meantime, you can control some of the flare-ups and symptoms yourself by making some lifestyle changes and trying some at-home treatments we’ll dive into next.
At-Home Treatments for TMJ-Related Tinnitus
Sometimes, taking control of your health with little steps at home goes a long way in improving your mental and physical state.
With TMJ-related tinnitus, those tiny adjustments can make significant differences in your symptoms and reduce the number and intensity of your flare-ups.
Let’s talk about how you can a) avoid the flare-ups as much as possible and b) handle them at home when they do occur.
Avoiding Bruxism and Tinnitus Symptoms
TMJ-related tinnitus happens because your TMJ and jaw muscles are overworked. Simply put, they need a break!
However, your jaw is essential for basically everything you do except breathing. You need it to talk, chew, yawn, laugh, and more. But there are some things you’re probably doing without realizing the way those behaviors and actions overwork your TMJ and masticatory muscles (those used for chewing food).
For instance, if you love to eat hard, sticky, or chewy foods, your teeth and jaw are working overtime. Try switching to a soft food-based diet, staying away from foods like steak, apples, and other hard-to-bite-or-chew items.
If your doctor recommends TMJ exercises to do at home, be sure to follow those instructions. In a pinch, you can use this guide for TMJ care, but always stop movements if they cause discomfort.
Finally, consistent use of a night guard is one of the most effective ways to reduce the symptoms of teeth clenching and grinding and give your jaw muscles a chance to relax.
Custom professional night guards (like those we create at JS Dental Lab) slide over your upper or lower teeth, preventing the two arches from touching. Without this essential grip, your jaw can’t grind, so it relaxes, giving those muscles much-needed time to recover and heal.
However, night guards usually don’t work instantly, so you’ll need to wear yours consistently for it to do the job. If you’re not sure what kind of oral appliance you need, we can help you decide.
What should you do if avoidance tactics don’t work and your flare-ups happen unexpectedly?
Hot and cold compresses can work wonders for fast pain relief. Ice is usually used on early injuries because the cold decreases inflammation and numbs the pain.
Hot packs, particularly moist heat, increase blood flow and loosen the muscles. For jaw pain, this relaxation also takes away the pain from aching muscles and joints. This effect is why you usually feel more relaxed after a hot bath or shower.
Another way to relieve this myofascial pain in your jaw area is to massage the tender muscles under your ear. Put your fingertip on the masseter muscles in your lower jaw (behind your molars and below your cheekbone). Massage gently in a circular motion with two or three fingers until the muscle pain is reduced.
But if conservative therapies don’t work, and you want something that helps relieve the pain quickly, over-the-counter Ibuprofen and NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatories) are effective but safe for most people.
Talk to your doctor before you take any medication that may interfere with your prescriptions or have side effects that impact your health.
When you’re dealing with ongoing subjective tinnitus, it’s not just irritating; it can also make you feel like you’re going a bit crazy.
But tinnitus doesn’t have to be forever. This “ear issue” might be coming from your bruxing habits, and those can be fixed with a combination of at-home and specialty treatments.
Make your first step a quick trip to our JS Dental Lab website to order a custom-made night guard, and watch your bruxing symptoms slowly disappear along with your ear ringing.