image of woman with headache from bruxing her teeth

Can Bruxism Lead You To Brain Surgery?
Image Courtesy of Craig Sommer DDS and

Could Bruxism Lead You To Brain Surgery?

Could you be on the path to unnecessary brain surgery if a proper diagnosis of bruxism is not made? It almost happened to one of my patients.

Jeanine visited my office one day. She had a less than convincing smile on her face even though she said, “I’m doing okay.”

I asked her, “What’s up? What’s going on?”

And she replied, “I just saw my doctor the other day and we were going over all these tests I’ve been through recently.”

“What tests?” I asked.

“I’ve been having severe headaches, and they just seem to be getting worse and worse.”

“Tell me more.”

“I think the headaches began several months ago, when I started a new project. I’ve had x-rays, blood tests and now he’s got me set up for a CAT scan and possibly exploratory surgery, if nothing shows up on the scan. I’m afraid it’s a tumor. What do you think?”

“It is possible, but let’s complete a thorough examination to see if there could be a dental cause for the pain.”

Bruxism- A Disrupter Of A Comfortable Night’s Sleep

This article is about bruxism, or teeth grinding. It’s a really common dental condition. Even though it’s common it sometimes can fool patients and their physicians into thinking they are dealing with a life threatening condition.

But, it’s much more likely that bruxism, a dental term for grinding teeth, will cause damage to teeth including unusual wear, loosening, breakage and even tooth loss. No, bruxism doesn’t cause brain tumors, but it can cause such significant tooth pain and muscle pain that you are sure something serious is going on.

Muscles that are contracted repeatedly or continuously can develop areas of tenderness that make even the simplest things impossible to do. Even things as simple as eating a meal can become excruciatingly painful. It might start out easy, but by the time you are halfway through with your meal chewing becomes a real chore. You’re not even enjoying your food anymore.

Everything Hurts

When muscles start to get this tender, they recruit other muscles, next-door neighbors, to pick up the slack. The tenderness that started in one muscle starts to spread to neighboring muscles and soon “everything” hurts.

Patients will often point a spot that’s tender with their finger and say it hurts here when I chew. Other times they’ll take both hands, with finger spread, and grab the sides of their head saying this is where it all hurts.

At this stage the pain will often progress to shoulders, neck and back. With headaches so severe that patients ask their physicians for strong narcotic pain medications, they are willing to be schedule for CAT scans and exploratory surgery.

What’s The Solution ?

If the pain is narrowed down to being caused by bruxism and not some other dental or medical concern, then the next step is to figure out how to stop grinding teeth. Sometimes it is related to stress and becomes a habit.

When it is stress related we could expect more grinding to take place when you are frazzled about life. Work, family, friends, school, relationships, etc. The Life Change Index Scale (The Stress Test) lists the Top 40 Life Stressors that can cause a major illness, and probably can cause grinding teeth in sleep as well.

If stress reduction techniques are effective, bruxism can be expected to be reduced too. My concern is that stress reduction techniques have to be practiced to evaluate their effectiveness. And if you are stressed and too busy to try stress reduction what can you do?

One Solution- A Bite Guard For Teeth Grinding

Bite guards or night guards as they also are known, are designed to protect teeth from the damaging forces of grinding. I have seen estimates of night time biting pressure of teeth to be between 150% to 400% of day time biting pressure. It’s no wonder that you can wake up with missing pieces of teeth in the morning.

Non customized bite guards can be found online, in the local pharmacy and in sporting goods stores. They are not custom made, and you may have some trouble adapting to the feel of the guard as you try to fall asleep. They may not even be appropriate for your situation.

Custom made guards are available in dental offices that treat TMJ and bruxism issues and generally are hands down more comfortable to wear. They are fitted and balanced to address your individual bite issues and have the greatest chances of success with reducing bruxism and protecting your teeth.

What If You Brux For Other Reasons Beside Stress?

New research is showing that sleep apnea can cause bruxism. What is sleep apnea? It means you stop breathing for a little while when you are sleeping. Your brain recognizes this and tries to wake you up by telling your jaw muscles to start grinding teeth or bruxing.

Your brain hopes it will wake you up enough that you will be able take another breath. If you move your jaw enough it might unblock your airway letting some more air into your lungs, which is generally a good thing. You might actually stop breathing 50 to 100 times in an hour so it can interrupt sleep and make you miserable.

Bruxism Should Be Evaluated By Your Dentist

Apnea stresses your heart, makes you fall asleep while driving , or watching TV and fogs your brain. It reduces oxygen available for your heart and brain to function well. It can be the death of you. If you brux don’t just assume that it’s just due to stress. Have your dentist evaluate your bruxism and the the sleep apnea connection just to be safe.

Back To Jeanine and Her Severe Headaches

Using a series of tests, we determined she had severe muscle tenderness with referred pain that mimicked severe conditions such as a tumor. Jeanine was totally frazzled and scared. Jeanine eventually revealed that she was working on a new project, was going to school at night and weekends, and was contemplating leaving her current job for a new one. And her husband was a real peach to deal with.

With all of that going on, her stress level was rather high. And one of the ways that she dealt with stress was grinding her teeth. I asked her if it made sense to her to have a custom fitted bite guard made to see if we could relieve her pain within just two or three days.

She Was Skeptical

She was skeptical, but agreed, since she was facing the prospects of an expensive CAT scan and possible exploratory surgery. Jeanine was scheduled for a fitting appointment after the bite guard was fabricated.

After fitting Jeanine with a custom bite guard and encouraging her to follow the directions for wearing it she left the office. We waited to hear from her. She did not call back the first day. We could not reach her the second. On the third day she returned to our office with a smile on her face, saying her pain was almost gone.

It Wasn’t Magic

It wasn’t magic it didn’t require strong medications and it didn’t require brain surgery. It was the proper use of a dental appliance with seemingly miraculous results.
If you are suffering from headaches and you are not sure what could be causing them, contact your dentist. It might be a relatively easy fix.

Bruxism could indeed bring you to brain surgery if the headaches are not evaluated properly. My vote is for an astute physician and dentist team to rule out the possibilities of very serious conditions.