How to handle teeth grinding in children

A woman recently approached me with a question concerning her son who is fond of grinding the teeth especially at night. This was first noticed by the older children who sleep in the same room with the boy. The mother also noticed this after a few sleepless nights she had been monitoring him.

Teeth grinding, medically called bruxism, is the involuntary clenching or grinding of the teeth. It generally happens during sleep, but some people experience it when they are awake. Many children have it but most outgrow it. Bruxism often happens during deep sleep phases or when children are under stress. They will not usually be woken up by the sound of their own teeth grinding but other people in the room might be! In most cases, children who grind their teeth don’t cause any damage to the teeth.

But in a few extreme cases, where the grinding is very regular, there could be damage to the teeth.

Causes of bruxism

Doctors are not always sure why bruxism happens. In some cases, children may grind teeth because the top and bottom teeth are not aligned properly. Others do it as a response to pain, such as from an earache or teething. They may also grind their teeth as a way to ease the pain, just as they might rub a sore muscle. Children do outgrow these fairly common causes for grinding. Some of them also do this when having fever.

Stress usually, nervous tension or anger, is another cause. For instance, a child might worry about a test at school or a change in routine (a new sibling or a new teacher). Even arguing with parents and siblings can cause enough stress to prompt teeth grinding or jaw clenching.

Some children who are hyperactive also experience this condition. And sometimes those with other medical conditions (such as cerebral palsy) or who take certain medicines can develop bruxism.

Complications of teeth grinding

Teeth grinding can cause a range of oral health problems, which may include, cracked tooth enamel, excessive wear and tear on the teeth, broken teeth or restorations, strain on the joints and soft tissue of the jaw joint, and enlargement of the jaw muscles (rare).

Signs and symptoms

The signs and symptoms include grinding sounds while the person is asleep, headache, jaw joint or ear pain, aching (or ‘dancing’) teeth – particularly upon waking, aching or stiffness of the face and temples upon waking, aching or stiffness in the jaws while chewing – particularly during breakfast, clenching the jaw when angry, anxious or concentrating, sensitive teeth, cracked or chipped tooth enamel, tooth indentations on the tongue, raised tissue on the cheek caused by cheek biting as well as wobbly teeth.

Treatment

Most kids outgrow bruxism, but a combination of parental observation and dental visits can help to keep the problem in check until they do.

In cases where the grinding and clenching make a child’s face and jaw sore or damage the teeth, dentists may prescribe a special night guard moulded to a child’s teeth, night guard is similar to the protective mouthpieces worn by athletes.

Finding out if they have it

Determining if your child has bruxism can be tricky, because the child often doesn’t realise he or she is grinding at all. Check in on them at night to discover whether they make grinding noises while asleep, or ask a sibling who shares the room with them. If your child complains of a sore jaw, or pain when chewing, this can also signal bruxism.

Is he particularly worried or angry about anything? If these emotions coincide with the sound of teeth-grinding while they sleep, it’s time to pay attention. Children experience a lot of anxiety in general, and you may need to address the root cause through other medical treatment or stress-relieving interventions, like a warm bath or soothing music before bedtime.

Most children stop grinding when they lose their baby teeth. However, a few of them do continue to grind into adolescence. And if the bruxism is caused by stress, it will continue until it eases.

What to do next

If you believe your child has bruxism, schedule a dental check-up for a proper diagnosis and further treatment. Your dentist may even order a custom mouth guard for wear at night to prevent grinding and the residual soreness.

The condition in children when it is as a result of stress can be prevented by taking special care to help them deal with it appropriately. The good news is  that most kids eventually grow out of the tendency, but it doesn’t hurt to make that dentist appointment to first diagnose the problem, allowing you to then treat it the best way you can.

Originally appeared on Punch News and Written by Dr Rotimi Adesanya, a Family Physician who blogs on Dr Adesanya’s Blog 

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The Admin is a Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria Certified Medical Doctor. He is popular for being a fast rising online voice in Nigeria, with a flair for animated writing. He is a professional health content writer.
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