More than one parent has wakened in the middle of the night to an unnerving sound emanating from their child's bedroom. Although it might seem like something from the latest horror flick is romping around in there, all that racket has a down-to-earth cause: teeth grinding.
Teeth grinding is the involuntary habit of gnashing the teeth together when not engaged in normal functions like eating or speaking. It can occur at any time, but frequently with children while they sleep. Adults may also grind their teeth, but it's more prevalent among children.
While stress seems to be the main reason for adult teeth grinding, many health providers believe the habit in children is most often caused by an overreactive response of the neuromuscular system for chewing, which may be immature. Other conditions like asthma, sleep apnea or drug use may also play a role.
Fortunately, there doesn't appear to be any lasting harm from young children grinding their teeth, although they may encounter problems like headaches, earaches or jaw pain in the short term. Most, though, will outgrow the habit and be no worse for wear.
But if it persists beyond childhood, problems can escalate. Adults run the risk of serious cumulative issues like chronic jaw pain, accelerated tooth wear or tooth fracturing. It's similar to finger sucking, a nearly universal habit among young children that poses no real harm unless it persists later in life.
And as with finger sucking, parents should follow a similar strategy of carefully monitoring their child's teeth grinding. If the habit continues into later childhood or adolescence, or noticeable problems like those mentioned previously begin to appear, it may be time to intervene.
Such intervention may initially include diagnosis and treatment for underlying problems like upper airway obstruction, asthma or stress. For short term protection against dental damage, your dentist can also fashion a custom mouthguard for your child to wear while they sleep. Made of pliable plastic, the guard prevents the teeth from making solid contact with each other during a grinding episode.
Outside of some lost sleep, there's little cause for alarm if your child grinds their teeth. But if it seems to go on longer than it should, you can take action to protect their long-term dental health.
If you would like more information on teeth grinding, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “When Children Grind Their Teeth.”