Although 10 percent of Americans are afflicted by the disorder known as bruxism, up to 50 percent of the populace grind their teeth during some period of their lives. And many teeth grinders don't seek treatment either because they don't yet experience pain or they're not even aware they have the problem.
Generally speaking, what it takes to become aware is to be told by a dentist, to wake yourself up by grinding, or to have your partner wake you up. Doctors think the malady may be explained partly by the stress of things like shaky finances or marital problems. In addition, the bite may be slightly misaligned, setting off the instinct to gnash.
The result is jaw pain, known as temporomandibular disorder, or TMD. As TMD progresses, it can trigger yet more grinding as the body reflexively tries to alleviate the discomfort. Caffeine and alcohol also seem to worsen the condition.
In a normal person, the teeth touch about eight minutes a day, generally during eating. But in the bruxism sufferer, the aggressive grinding may go on for 80 minutes a night. To combat the disorder, a plastic guard has been developed that can be fitted by a dentist and worn during sleep. But this frequently offers only temporary protection, because many eventually grind right through the plastic.
Many authorities say the best approach is to deal with the underlying stress is by learning relaxation techniques and undergoing psychotherapy. "We're not asking about their mother and father or anything," said Edward Grace, a dentist and psychologist at the University of Maryland Dental School. "We recommend reducing stress in any way they think possible."