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Teeth Clenching and Headaches: What Can You Do?

8 min read
by JS Dental Lab |

You woke up with a headache — again — and you really don’t want it to mess with your day. So, you do the usual mix of pain-relieving strategies, whatever that looks like for you.

The thing is, it’s not normal to get frequent headaches. This symptom is a sigh sign that something else may be going on beneath the surface. 

Until you address that underlying problem, you may continue that endless cycle of temporarily relieving your headaches with a quick fix.

Morning headaches may result from bruxism, better known as teeth clenching. If that’s what you have, the good news is there are lots of things you can do to relieve the pain. 

Dental and medical research on bruxism link stress to that subconscious behavior. 

While we can’t fix your worries for you, we can give you plenty of suggestions on limiting the damage teeth clenching does to your body.

Grinding, Headaches, and You

How do you handle stress? 

Like most of us, you probably ignore it and hope it goes away. The problem with this is that your body is still producing the stress hormones, which have to be released somehow. (Spoiler alert: the problem doesn’t usually end on its own.)

One way that your body tries to release stress is when teeth grinding and jaw clenching enter the picture through jaw clenching, often diagnosed as bruxism.

Understanding How Bruxism Affects Your Body

Cortisol is your body’s stress hormone. It’s produced in the adrenal glands, the same area where your fight-or-flight responses kick in when your brain thinks you’re in danger. As you face internal and external stressors, your body releases cortisol. 

Short-term cortisol is a good thing. It tells you to jump out of the way of an oncoming car or frisbee. When it goes on for too long, cortisol builds up and can lead to weight gain, muscle atrophy, diabetes, and other serious conditions.

However, there are ways you naturally get rid of this stress hormone, such as sleep. While you’re sleeping, your body works on fixing the day’s damages, including eliminating excess cortisol. 

One way you reduce these hormones is by grinding and clenching your teeth. 

You don’t have to be stressed to have bruxism, though. It’s also a symptom of sleep disorders like obstructive sleep apnea, which we’ll talk more about later. 

The important thing is to understand the perils of grinding and how they go far beyond your teeth.

Symptoms of Bruxism

Your teeth will, of course, be the first place to feel the damage from bruxism. You may not notice at first, but that constant movement erodes the enamel, which can lead to abraded, chipped, or cracked teeth. 

The enamel is the outer layer that protects your fragile dentin and pulp. You’ll likely notice your teeth become extra sensitive as it wears away. 

The symptoms don’t stop there. Your jaw is doing the heavy lifting, so to speak, pushing down with a bite force you don’t replicate when awake. 

The strength of the clenching stresses your jaw muscles, which causes issues like:

  • Facial pain
  • Jaw muscle discomfort
  • Headaches and neck pain
  • New onset of migraines
  • TMJ disorder (typically popping, clicking, locking, or dislocation of the temporomandibular joint)
  • Earaches that aren’t from an ear issue
  • Cheek damage

A dental exam is an easy way to tell if you have bruxism. They’ll notice the tooth enamel damage, and you likely have wear facets (smooth, flat surfaces on your teeth from the constant grinding).

Still, many people don’t realize they have a grinding condition until the headaches, neck, or jaw pain become too obvious to ignore. 

Similar: Common Reasons Why You Wake Up With Jaw Pain

The Medical Facts Behind Bruxism

Research on sleep bruxism predominantly links it with stress, but there are other possible origins for your grinding behavior. 

Aside from anxiety about the world around you and pain, other common causes of jaw clenching and grinding include: 

  • Passing between light and deep sleep
  • Sleep disorders
  • Neurochemical imbalances in the brain

Sleep Arousal Responses

One suggestion is that grinding kicks in between sleep cycles. These periods are designated by your arousal response, telling you when you’re switching from light to deep sleep. 

In one study, researchers found that bruxers having more transient arousal periods while sleeping than non bruxers.

Transient arousals make you more alert, increasing your heart rate and muscle activity — including your facial muscles and jaw clenching actions.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

With obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), switching through sleep cycles doesn’t happen naturally. Your airway partially closes, and the arousal response is supposed to restore airflow subconsciously. 

The partial closure is why so many people with OSA snore loudly, and their sleep is restless. There isn’t anything much more stressful than the inability to breathe, so your brain releases its natural stress responses. 

The result? Clenching, grinding, and involuntary movements, which is why around one-quarter of OSA sufferers also have bruxism.

Neurochemical Imbalances

In addition to cortisol, your brain relies on many other chemicals for the body to function correctly. Some are neurochemicals, like dopamine and serotonin. 

When these chemicals are imbalanced, it impacts the coordination of movements. Rather than sending the chemicals where they’re supposed to be going, they head through indirect channels, like the jaw joint and muscles. 

This imbalance is why people with Parkinson’s disease struggle with neurological movement. The chemicals that must work together along specific pathways aren’t flowing down the proper channels. 

People who use amphetamines and nicotine have increased dopamine, resulting in twice as much of a risk of bruxism.

If you haven’t figured out what’s causing your grinding, don’t ignore it. It could be physiological stress and a warning sign that you have a more serious, underlying issue.

Learn more with: Stress and Bruxism: How to Stop Teeth Grinding

Dental Dangers of Teeth Grinding

woman with neck pain

The field of dentistry is full of patients with bruxism-related dental problems. Grinding in your sleep puts extra pressure on your teeth, so the primary damage affects the enamel directly.

Your oral health declines as the enamel erodes, leaving you more susceptible to cavity-causing bacteria and gum disease. 

As the jaw muscles clench tightly, your delicate TMJ gets overworked. The jaw joint and muscles become so sensitive that even the slightest swelling or displacement causes pain.

How Night Guards Reduce Dental Damage

Ready for the good news? 

A simple solution can help you avoid these dental dangers. If you wear a custom-made night guard when you’re sleeping, your top and bottom teeth can’t connect, and your lower jaw doesn’t have the necessary pressure to clench.

The key is to ensure you’re using a night guard that fits your teeth like a glove. Your dentist can design one for you, but these can get pricey between the office visits and the premium rates they charge. 

Over-the-counter boil-and-bite guards are cheap, but buyer, beware. They’re truly a “you get what you pay for” solution. These guards don’t cover all the micro crevices in your mouth, and the material is bulky and uncomfortable.

There is a Goldilocks “just right” solution: using JS Dental Lab, a professional lab. 

JS Dental Lab mails you the same specialized kit used in dentists’ offices. You make the impression of your teeth, send the kit back, and experts create your high-quality night guard. 

Within a few days, you’ll be using your new guard and eliminating the destructive effects of bruxism. 

You’ll still need some dental care to fix any enamel damage or cavities that have already occurred, but the night guard will prevent your clenching from worsening and reduce headaches.

New to night guards? Read this before you buy a night guard online!

How to Reduce Grinding

While a night guard minimizes the effects of the symptoms, it doesn’t get rid of bruxism altogether. You also need to get to the root of the problem for your condition to improve.

Most medical and dental studies on bruxism point to stress as the cause. So, if you get rid of the stress, you can get rid of the grinding. 

Stress-Relief Tips

There are some tried-and-true tips that help your body release stress gradually. 

As you work alongside your medical doctor or mental health therapist to solve serious issues, try these at-home suggestions:

  • Write your thoughts in a notebook or do something creative when you’re feeling emotional. The activity helps release the excess hormones.
  • Exercise at least 15-20 minutes per day, even if it’s taking a walk or dancing in the living room.
  • Set boundaries with people who stress you.
  • Reduce your screen time, cutting it off entirely at least one hour before bed.
  • Eat a healthy, nutritious diet as much as possible.

These stress-reducing tips will work if you use them consistently. Keep in mind that you may have underlying causes of your bruxism to take care of.

Non-Stress Related Grinding Relief

Sleep disorders don’t generally go away when your stress does. They’ll require medical care to determine why OSA, insomnia, and other nocturnal issues are plaguing you. 

In addition to your medical provider’s advice, these tips can give you some relief from constant grinding:

  • Try cognitive behavior therapy to help you catch and release any stressful thoughts that crop up in between your sleep cycles.
  • Use natural supplements to improve your sleep quality. Always talk to your doctor first before adding any supplement or medicine to your day.
  • Stick to a regular sleep schedule.
  • Exercise daily.
  • Create a calm, dark environment in your bedroom with a comfortable temperature.

By taking control of the variables around you as you’re sleeping, you can cycle through those arousal states without excess distractions. Your brain will be less likely to “notice” stressful external stimuli and remain at rest.

See also: Our Best Tips for Sleeping With a Night Guard

Reducing the Symptoms While You Wait

Close-up of a man getting a shoulder massage

Quitting a teeth clenching habit isn’t an overnight process. While you’re working on reducing the behavior, you still want the symptoms, like those persistent headaches that are driving you nuts, to go away.

Over-the-counter ibuprofen-based pain relievers help, but they have a lot of side effects if you take them long-term. 

To get rid of tension-type headaches caused by grinding, see how these simple home remedies work for you:

  • Wear that custom-fit night guard from JS Dental Lab nightly
  • Avoid chewing gum and consuming hard or sticky foods that cause your jaw muscles to work overtime
  • Ask your doctor or physical therapist for mouth exercises you can do at home
  • Massage the trigger points around the TMJ area
  • Get regular conservative care, such as massage, chiropractic, or physical therapy treatments to reduce neck and shoulder pain (as a bonus, these therapies often alleviate stress)

Slowly adding these suggestions into your day when you feel the dull headache coming on should improve your discomfort.

Talk to your medical doctor and dentist about other treatment options in severe cases. You may need fillings or a root canal to fix the grinding damage as you work on reducing headaches for good.

Ensure you never miss another night’s sleep by reading our 7 Things to Add to Your Bedtime Checklist

Conclusion

Chronic headaches and teeth clenching often go together like an unwanted dynamic duo. Where you have one, you typically have the other. However, it doesn’t have to be that way for you anymore!

Armed with this information and your JS Dental Lab custom night guard, you can get rid of muscle tension, headache pain, and other symptoms that stem from bruxism.

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