The Truth Behind Teeth Grinding: How Pediatric Bruxism Is Both Common and Unhealthy

Updated: Nov 20, 2019

By: Dr. Jill Ombrello

Adult teeth grinding has been associated with stress, nerve damage, missing or damaged teeth or dental restorations, and anatomical and functional issues with the TMJ. More recently, as there has been an increase awareness of functional and sleep medicine, clinical researchers have also determined that there is a very high prevalence (77.8%) of sleep bruxism associated with patients presenting with obstructive sleep apnea syndrome[1] (“OSAS”; a syndrome most frequently associated with snoring and difficulty breathing at night).

So, if bruxism is associated with the stress and damage more often associated with an adult’s lifetime of function, why do young children and adolescents grind their teeth while their sleeping? Is that math test really that stressful?  Is it genetic? Will they grow out of it? The answer is simple: NO!

Recent clinical research, as well as my own experience personally treating and overseeing the treatment of thousands of children have highlighted a clear correlation between sleep disordered breathing and teeth grinding. Teeth grinding can occur in a child as young as 2 years old, and unlike popular “soccer field sideline advice” you may hear from other parents, 90% of children will not grow out of this condition. In fact, over a third of the time, if left untreated, the clenching and grinding will actually get worse!

Why is childhood teeth grinding bad?

Well, to name just a few of the many side effects, bruxism can cause any number of the following:

  • Cracked teeth, causing pain, need for dental restoration or premature loss of tooth

  • Increased risk of cavities due to worn tooth enamel

  • Decreased vertical dimension of facial growth and development – this is a fancy way of saying that your teeth are supposed to be a particular height, and that height is critical for proper speech function, chewing and jaw function, and esthetically the human eye recognizes that there is a certain, natural length to a tooth that is both healthy and esthetically pleasing.

  • Decreased natural expansion, which leads to orthopedic and orthodontic crowding problems in the growing maxilla and mandible

  • Irreversible damage to pediatric and adult teeth

Why does grinding matter if the baby teeth are going to fall out eventually anyway?

This is actually a very logical question, and unless you’re either trained in the dental field OR you’ve been educated by a dental professional, I could easily see why a lot of parents do not prioritize baby teeth (clinically known as the “deciduous” teeth, or teeth that will be exfoliated). Making a case for the importance of baby teeth is only made more challenging because parents often partner with their pediatricians in understanding the health-related matters that are most important for their child at each developmental stage. Some physicians are spectacularly informed and make sure to either educate the parent(s) or encourage them to seek counsel of a trained dental professional; and some physicians have not had the opportunity or capacity to dig into the importance of baby teeth. This is not a finger-pointing blog; we understand that physicians have a lot to focus on and help their patients with, and it’s most likely not the individual healthcare providers’ fault, but more in line with the fact that the majority of medical schools only offer a lecture or two at best on dental health through the entire course of their on-average 8-year medical training career (insert eye roll emoji here).

Nonetheless, baby teeth are super important for a lot of different reasons. Below are some just to name a few:

  • Guiding bone growth to create space for the adult dentition, or teeth

  • Creating well aligned hard tissue structures that optimize myofunctional processes such as chewing, swallowing, and speaking

  • Supporting proper TMJ growth and health function

  • Chewing, or masticating, a healthy diet that includes crisp fruits and vegetables

  • Esthetics that can contribute to a positive self-esteem

So while yes, it is true, most all baby teeth will eventually fall out and be replaced by adult teeth, if these baby teeth are lost prematurely or damaged severely, that can contribute to major issues within the adult teeth. Additionally, if left untreated, then the child will likely continue to grind his or her teeth once their adult teeth erupt. Symptoms connected to adult teeth grinding include ear and neck pain, jaw or TMJ dysfunction or pain or popping/clicking, muscle aches, swelling, cracked teeth, periodontal disease, among other chronic conditions and symptoms.

Ok. Hopefully now I’ve sufficiently convinced you of why grinding your teeth is bad and also why baby teeth are so important. Next step, I’m sure you might be curious how and why sleep disordered breathing causes pediatric bruxism.

I had a broader discussion of sleep disordered breathing in this blog here, if you want to read more about it (that blog also includes a custom infographic that I randomly decided to include a cartoon version of myself in for no other reason than I thought it looked cool ;) worth checking out, in my biased opinion).

But if you don’t want to go down that rabbit’s hole, here’s the reader’s digest version:

A newer research initiative over the last decade has focused on finding the root cause of so many of the common conditions and chronic symptoms with which our children are plagued and in some cases, diagnosed; these conditions and symptoms include chronic allergies, attention-deficit conditions, headaches, poor behavior or school performance, prolonged bedwetting, snoring, mouth breathing, eczema, restless sleep, nightmares and night terrors, aggressive behavior, depression, daytime drowsiness, swollen tonsils, and asthma.

What this new wave of research has shown is that most of these symptoms are caused by unhealthy sleep or bad habits that cause breathing disorders, which are exacerbated at night. But for decades, instead of the root cause being identified and properly treated, we’ve medicated our children. We’ve put band-aids on chronic symptoms, basically subscribing these kids to a lesser quality of life. I’m not trying to be dramatic, but taking a medication every day that can help symptoms of a chronic condition but also possibly introduce side effects while never actually addressing the root cause is major compromise in the quality of a lifetime.

More specifically, sleep disordered breathing is caused by an airway that is obstructed, jaws that are too small or misaligned, and/or poor oral habits or chronic inflammation causing mouth breathing. Proper sleep is hugely important for a host of different reasons, most notably overall cellular rejuvenation, endocrine and immune system regulation, and neural function. However, when the child is not breathing correctly while asleep, the body is very smart and will try to move the lower jaw around and forward to expand the airway that sits behind the mandible. And it is this lower jaw moving around and forward, searching for a healthier position, that presents itself as grinding. The teeth are just collateral damage to a very smart, intuitive body desperately working to get the airflow it needs in the way it needs it.

Below is a CBCT to help explain what is going on.  In the left image, this adolescent has her mouth open, which causes the mandible (or lower jaw) to move down and back, restricting the airway. In the image on the right, the patient has closed her jaws in the proper position, allowing for a larger volume in the airway. We use this as an example, however you can imagine that when a child has an underdeveloped mandible, which can commonly be referred to as a major overbite or overjet, this airway is restricted, and so the lower jaw will move throughout the night trying to open up the airway and get the flow the body and brain need.

Ok. By now, I hope we are on the same page on the following points:

  • Baby teeth are important.

  • Teeth grinding may be normal, but it is not healthy.

  • The root cause needs to be treated because otherwise, a child will not “grow out of” this symptom but instead, it will get worse.The root cause of teeth grinding is almost always sleep-disordered breathing.

If we aren’t on the same page on these items, please leave a comment below or chat me up in the box in the bottom righthand corner of your screen and let me know what questions you have. Because I’m sure if you have a question or don’t fully understand a concept I’m trying to explain here, I’m confident there are other concerned parents out there who are still confused or unsure as to what’s going on. I’d love the opportunity to help address those questions, allowing me to help more parents and ultimately their kiddos in achieving new levels of health and wellness.

Assuming we are on the same page because I'm awesome and obviously would never leave anything out (this is me being sarcastic, btw; I do my best to explain, but I know there's always more I can do, so just let me know what's missing), that takes us to the last segment of this lovely little blog…