Nocturnal Teeth Grinding in Children: Why It Can Be Serious

shutterstock_123206776Teeth grinding or clenching (known as bruxism) affects an estimated 30 to 40 million children and adults. Many adults are not aware they grind or clench because it occurs subconsciously while they sleep. It can be even more difficult for a child to know they clench or grind because they aren’t aware of the signs or how to communicate them to their parents.

Teeth grinding, especially in children, is often an indication of sleep-disordered breathing (i.e., sleep apnea). While the act of teeth grinding can cause irreversible damage to the enamel and lead to temporomandibular joint disorder, sleep-disordered breathing is even more harmful and can even be life-threatening. Therefore, it is critical to catch teeth grinding as early as possible, evaluate the child for sleep-disordered breathing and develop a plan to address it.  

Teeth Grinding and Sleep-Disordered Breathing

Physicians and dentists believe that one of the major contributing causes of teeth grinding at night — in both children and adults — is airway obstruction. During sleep, the tongue and the muscles in the upper airway start to relax and the tongue can retrude toward the back of the throat. The mandible (jaw) also tends to relax and drift toward the airway, causing the tongue to further regress. The combination of these factors obstructs the airway and restricts breathing.

Experts theorize that clenching the teeth is a subconscious attempt to hold the jaw in place and prevent it from retruding (shifting backward) and obstructing the airway. Studies have shown that keeping the airway clear (for example, with the use of a CPAP machine) often improves or eliminates nighttime teeth grinding.

Sleep-disordered breathing (i.e., sleep apnea) has been linked to an increased risk of serious health problems, including heart disease, blood pressure problems and stroke. Therefore, it is imperative to identify and treat it as soon as possible.

Signs Your Child Grinds

  • Complains of jaw pain in the morning
  • Complains of pain or soreness when chewing
  • Sibling “tattles” on them

What to Do If Your Child Grinds or Clenches

If you believe your child grinds or clenches their teeth regularly, schedule a checkup with your dentist for an examination. . Dr. Strauss of Aesthetic Dental Care of New Jersey will visually examine the teeth for signs of damage and evaluate the need for possible tonsil evaluation as hypertrophy of the tonsils plays a major role in children and obstructive sleep apnea.

And, depending on what they find during their examination, the dentist may also refer you to a sleep specialist to perform a sleep study on your child to identify sleep-disordered breathing.

If the diagnosis is sleep apnea, Dr. Strauss can help. Trained in neuromuscular dentistry, he offers dental orthotics, which are special appliances that are worn during sleep to hold the jaw in place and prevent airway obstruction.

To learn more about bruxism, sleep-disordered breathing and the methods to treat them, please contact our New Jersey dental office today and request an appointment with Dr. Strauss.


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