Teeth grinding is a condition of clenching, grinding, or gnashing the teeth either unconsciously during the day, or at night while sleeping. The medical term for teeth grinding is bruxism, and nighttime teeth grinding is called sleep bruxism. Bruxism, if severe enough, can cause headaches, tooth damage and jaw problems or disorders, but it may often go undiagnosed, especially with sleep bruxism.
Symptoms of bruxism are grinding or clenching teeth, worn, flattened, chipped, or overly sensitive teeth, tight jaw or jaw pain, earache because of a tight jaw, disrupted sleep, neck and shoulder tension, or headaches. Conventional medicine doesn’t entirely understand the causes of teeth grinding, however adult teeth grinding is linked to certain behaviours including anxiety, stress, or tension, suppressed anger or frustration, or aggressive, competitive or hyperactive personalities. Other causes may be poor alignment of upper and lower teeth or the body’s natural sleep cycles. In some cases, bruxism can be a result of another disease, such as Parkinson’s or Huntington diseases. In children, teeth grinding may be due to the growth and development of teeth and jaws, and is usually outgrown by adolescence.
There isn’t much that medical treatment can do to resolve teeth grinding- medications are largely ineffective but muscle relaxants may be prescribed or your doctor may consider changing one of your medications if teeth grinding is a side effect. A mouth guard may also be fitted to protect teeth while sleeping, or your dentist may correct misaligned teeth, however this may not stop the grinding. The best solutions seem to be lifestyle and behavioural changes, including reducing stress and learning to manage stress better through relaxation and exercise, and practicing an awareness of proper jaw and mouth position, with the tongue on the roof of the mouth, jaw relaxed, the teeth slightly parted, and the mouth closed.
From a Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective, teeth grinding can be treated quite effectively with acupuncture. There are five main patterns commonly seen in this disorder. Out of these, four are considered excessive conditions where one or two organs are functioning at an excessive or hyperactive rate, commonly the heart, stomach, and liver. Excess types of bruxism are typically seen in people with stress, anxiety, tension, anger and frustration, and hyperactivity or competitiveness because the hyperactive state of these organs leaves the mind and body in a restless or agitated state.
Another excess pattern is caused largely by poor diet that weakens the digestion and causes food stagnation in the digestive system, leading to the inability for a proper restful sleep, and symptoms such as feeling of oppression in the chest and stomach, no desire to think of food, diarrhea or constipation, abdominal pain, and nighttime bruxism.
The final cause of bruxism from a TCM perspective is a deficient condition of blood and qi-energy weakness. The symptoms common in this pattern are pale complexion, dizziness, vertigo, heart palpitations, pale lips and nails and disinclination to sleep. The main differentiation in this pattern is that the teeth grinding would be rather quiet, low, dull sounding, rather than rougher and louder sounding in the excess patterns. Factors that may lead to bruxism are poor diet, weak digestive system, or age.
Acupuncture improves bruxism by correcting the functioning of the organs that are excessive or deficient. Points are selected along the energetic trajectory (meridian) of the organ in imbalance. The points can be located on the trunk, limbs, and/or face. However, points don’t have to be done on the face or jaw just because this is the area of the symptoms, although local points may be used to relieve muscle tension and pain. They key to acupuncture and Chinese Medicine and its effectiveness is focusing on not only the symptoms, but the cause. Some simple changes to diet and lifestyle habits are also easy, effective ways to increase the results of acupuncture.
James Kaufman is a Registered Acupuncturist at Okanagan Acupuncture Centre, 1625 Ellis St in Kelowna, BC.