Is this familiar?
You think your child is fast asleep, then suddenly, a screeching sound is coming out of his/her bedroom. What could be causing it? The most likely explanation is your child is grinding his teeth – an activity clinically known as sleep bruxism.
Sleep bruxism, which is often associated with jaw pain (TMJ), is the most common problem seen in my practice for the past 30 years. As a result, I know first-hand that a little information goes a long way to help parents understand what is happening and what can be done about it.
When A Child Grinds His Teeth, What’s Happening?
The first thing to understand is that a certain level of jaw movement during sleep is normal for most people. It’s called Rhythmic Masticatory Muscle Activity, or RMMA. Some people who grind their teeth experience higher levels of RMMA, which can result in tooth damage and jaw pain problems.
Much research has been done in the past few years on teeth grinding and sleep bruxism. One significant finding is that in many people who grind during sleep, their brain is becoming aroused and causing sleep to be fragmented. The result is the body’s fight-or-flight system becomes activated. In tandem, jaw motion (RMMA) increases and teeth grinding is often the result.
Teeth Grinding in Children Under 10-Years Old
If your child is under ten-years-old and grinding his teeth, it’s likely during the time when his baby teeth are being lost. If you hear the telltale screeching sound that indicates your child is grinding his teeth, look for evidence of tooth wear. If you see it, a visit to your child’s dentist is highly recommended. Also, ask your child if he is experiencing jaw symptoms such as joint popping, cracking, locking, or pain. If the answer is yes, it’s time to see the dentist.
Teeth Grinding In Adolescents & Teens
We have many clues about why adolescents and teens grind their teeth during sleep. Current theories include:
1. Large tonsils, a big tongue that clogs the airway, a small lower jaw, blocked nasal passages, or a long floppy soft palate can cause breathing problems during sleep, and, in turn, causes a drop in blood oxygen. The brain awakens and activates the body’s fight-or-flight system increasing the likelihood of sleep bruxism.
2. Adrenaline – During times of stress and anxiety, the level of adrenaline (catecholamines) in the bloodstream increases. For adolescents and teens who experience long-term anxiety, high adrenaline levels have been shown to induce sleep bruxism.
3. Chronic Pain – Migraines, gastrointestinal disorders, and back and neck pain set up ideal conditions for sleep disturbances and can lead to teeth grinding.
4. ADD/ADHD Medications – Medications such as Adderall, Concerta, and Strattera stimulate the fight or flight part of a child’s nervous system and result in sleep disturbances.
5. Caffeine – Many adolescents and teens drink coffee and high caffeine beverages during the day and into the evening. Caffeine has been proven to be a contributing factor to disturbed sleep patterns.
6. Nicotine – Nicotine is a stimulant. It’s widely known to contribute to sleep problems. The use of e-cigarettes, which are very high in nicotine, is particularly prevalent among adolescents and teens and can be a direct cause of sleep problems.
7. Not Enough Sleep – With the obligations of school and extracurricular activities, many young people are under a tremendous amount of pressure. They put in long hours and don’t get enough sleep. Others simply stay up late playing video games or communicating on social networks. Sleep quality is ultimately impacted, leading to restless nights of tossing and turning and the emergence of sleep bruxism.
What You Should Do:
By now, you can understand if your child is grinding his teeth, there are multiple risk factors. The good news is that teeth grinding is treatable and can be managed. There is a wide array of options at our disposal to help manage the problems caused by sleep bruxism for children who grind their teeth including oral appliances, jaw exercises, meditation, acupuncture, medication, and even Botox.
But here’s the key – managing your child’s sleep bruxism will not cure it. It will, however, help him get through some tough periods. Meanwhile, the medical community continues to pursue a better understanding of the underlying causes of nighttime brain arousals.
If your child is grinding his teeth and you’re concerned, his dentist or orthodontist should be able to help. If the situation is dire, you can find someone in your area who focuses on Sleep Bruxism, such as a member of the American Academy of Orofacial Pain – AAOP. Choose a professional designated Diplomate.