When You Bite at Night

Twenty years ago, I had a peculiar experience camping.

Unable to sleep, I ventured out of my tent to fetch a soothing glass of wine. I was not the only restless soul.  Moonlight illuminated Mom, sipping wine and stargazing. I joined her on the picnic bench near her tent.

We exchanged polite murmurs and tilted our heads to the sky. The Milky Way Dangled just beyond our reach, a three-dimensional filigree of dust and light.

A strange sound interrupted our peace. It was a clomping, lopping clatter, like a tiny horse trotting across a Formica countertop. Puzzled, I strained to listen. The weird clopping continued. My brain whizzed to make sense of the unusual racket.

I mentally ticked off possibilities.  Were wild animals engaged in a sinister game of rock-hockey?  Was someone taking infrared photographs of us? Perhaps a serial killer chipped future notches into a nearby boulder?  The odd clacking sound became louder and more insistent.

The horror of the unknown swept over me. My body dumped a massive quantity of tingly adrenaline straight to my toes.  Before I succumbed to a full-fledged panic attack, I whispered to Mom, “Do you hear that?”

“Yes. Yes, that’s Dad. He’s grinding his teeth.”

I would have been less surprised if she had told me the noise came from aliens or Bigfoot.  I crept up to the tent. Clack, clack, clack, grate. Chomp.  Chomp.

Poor Dad. I never imagined tooth grinding could make such a racket. His jaw gnashing seemed so powerful; certainly, he would pulverize his face into splinters before morning.

Dad made it through the night, but years later he sacrificed four cracked and worn molars to bruxism.

Painful Teeth

Ten percent of the population experiences significant bruxism (teeth grinding).  Daily, you chew food using 20-40 pounds of pressure. Nighttime bruxing can generate 250 pounds of pressure.  Dentists and oral surgeons can’t decide if stress or uneven teeth cause bruxism.

My personal experience is that people on the autism spectrum grind their teeth more often. The proprioceptive input relieves residual nighttime anxiety.

Fast forward to winter 2012. The unnerving clomping and grating sound revisited me–in my son’s bedroom. I considered making Liev’s first dental appointment as I listened to his symphonic teeth-gnashing.

I put it off, naturally. Regular doctor appointments induce hysteria in both Liev and myself. Brushing Liev’s teeth is like imposing dental hygiene on a badger.  This daily struggle I leave to Papa or ignore outright. A dental exam seemed unmanageable.

That changed last week when Liev broke a molar.

Panicked, I finagled a same-day dental appointment. The dentist informed me that a combination of tooth grinding and decay caused his molar to deteriorate and break. He also recommended swift removal. An extraction was scheduled for 7 am the next morning.

The kindly dentist prepared me for the possibility of general anesthesia for my rambunctious son.

To be continued…

17 thoughts on “When You Bite at Night

  1. I have heard my brother grind his teeth. It woke me up once when I was sleeping on a different floor of the house we were in. A friend of mine told me I woke him up in a hotel room once grinding my teeth. Fortunately, a dentist told me that I probably don’t do it very often because my teeth do not look very worn. I had a terrible experience at with a dentist recently. They needed to fill cavities on both sides of my mouth, so they injected novocain into both sides of my mouth and left the room. Suddenly I could not feel my mouth or my tongue, I felt like I could not swallow, I felt like it was hard to breathe, my heart rate increased and I felt a familiar feeling starting to come over me. I was starting to have a panic attack. The dentist and his assistant still had not returned to the room I was in and I was hoping it might go away before they got back. It never reached crisis levels but it could have at any moment. But here is the scariest part. When they came back in the room I told them that I sometimes have panic attacks and that I felt like I was starting to have one from the novocain. They ignored my comment and said, “Oh, don’t worry about that. It’s not a problem. You’re fine.” I think dentists need a lot more training in how to deal with people who have reactions to drugs or stress like that. A panic attack is way more terrifying when people don’t take it seriously. In the end, I told the dentist and his assistants that they probably did not understand my situation and I would let them know if I needed to get up and walk around. They seemed to think I was kind of strange for saying that, but whatever. From now on, I think I will ask for gas or a different anesthetic. Novocain is not my friend.

    1. Aspie Kid,

      Thank you for visiting. I am sorry about your awful dental experience. I hate going myself and the sensation of Novocain is disorienting. I sympathize fully with your feeling of panic. Panic attacks are horrifying. Unless a person has had them, it is difficult to translate the awfulness of the sensation. It’s sort of like a migraine sufferer being told to take some Motrin.

      I was very lucky when we took T to the pediatric dentist. Clearly, they had training and expertise. Oddly the oral surgeon was less sensitive, perhaps because Tyoma can talk. Under the surface of words, I could read his little eyes and knew how to help.

      Professionals who listen to and respect their patients are invaluable. No one should have their fears or anxieties brushed aside. Good for you for telling your doctor what you needed. I have had my fill of dismissive brusqueness for one lifetime. I’m self-advocating next time I’m in that anxious little chair!

  2. Thanks for the insights into the mysterious world of teeth grinding. My auntie is a heavy league teeth grinder as well:-)

      1. Your reply was quite puzzling until I read arianezurcher’s comment below. Aha, so a night guard is something to put in the mouth! That sounds more reasonable than having an actual person walk around all night to make sure the teeth grinding doesn’t go out of control! (and my auntie definitely did not have that! 😉

        Ps. I am not stupid, just not native English speaker:-)

    1. Please forgive me. I tend to forget that you don’t know everything that I do!

      I just loved your interpratation of nightguard. I had never thought of it that way. I am smiling now, wondering if the nightguard could do some household chores when I am not grinding my teeth! 🙂

  3. Poor T! I think I need to go to GA…grinders anonymous. I am in denial, but may be a grinder, although I prefer to call myself dental-retentive.

    1. Ha! Dental retentive! I love it. It does sound rather sisnister, though. Like you might be a secret tooth collector. Or maybe the tooth fairy!

  4. I used to grind my teeth, my sister would wake me in horror, but I never understood why she was so upset. She told me it sounded like a truck’s grinding gears! One dentist had a night guard made, but it kept me awake, like having chewing gum in my mouth all the time. I’m sorry to hear of T’s grinding and subsequent dental issues.

    1. Ah! A fellow bruxer! 🙂 I laughed at your comparison of a night guard to chewing gum. I almost liked mine. Gripping my four lower incisors tightly it was a nice bit of pressure. The problem I had was it eroded my lower lip, especially if I had a cold.

      T is doing much better. Despite the trouble, we will get him to the dentists regularly now. I don’t want him to be as afraid to go as I was as a child. Thank heavens for autism awareness at the dentists!

  5. Sorry I am so late to the comments here. I have been trying to catch up on all my reading AND my brain cannot seem to stop processing long enough to stop writing at times. My internet withdraw made me all a flutter.

    I cringe at grinding teeth. It sends painful shivers through my body. Sometimes Daniel does and I have to wake him and try to make it stop. No one else seems to. I know I have in the past because I woke myself up from painful shivers I caused myself!

    Oh, the dentist! Daniel has not gone yet. I am sorry all of this happened, but I read your other post first and know that everything went great. 🙂 I am able to get Daniel’s teeth brushed at least once a day, but that only happened after I showed him several shows about what happens to your teeth if you do not take care of them. Now the kids are fearful of “bacteria eating their teeth.” I am not sure if that is good or bad, but they are brushing! We slightly got the floss you know like once every three months. HA!

    I love the dentist and going to the doctors. The kids have some anxiety about it, but enthusiasm seems to trump and I explain in great detail what is going to happen before we go and why they do everything. Ariel is the only one who has gad to go to the dentist. Her front teeth broke when she fell on the floor face first at 4 years old. I was so freaked out! However, I was really excited about her going to the dentist. She ended up loving it too.

    I have no idea why I am rambling on and on here possibly because I haven’t commented on here for so long. Ok, I best stop now. Silly me!!

    1. Hey Girl!

      You are welcome to ramble on! I encourage it! I am still struggling to read all my blogs and comment, it seems my inbox messages grow exponentailly every day!

      I am so grateful that everything worked out so well, I was very overwhelmed by the whole experience and feeling very guilty that his teeth have gotten so bad. We struggle with the twice a day brushing, but we do the evening brush quite well. A large part of what we needed to overcome was sensory. The problem with that is that there are few motivators that work on sensory stuff.

      I found myself teaching Tyoma to endure brushing with his favorite motivator. Too funny–“Yay! You brushed your teeth. Here’s your jellybean! ” 🙂

      I dread dentists and doctors, but if I only went to the store for groceries twice a year I would certainly dread that as well. Explaining everything in advance is the best way to help Tyoma, and if I could do so without looking ashen myself, it would help.

      Anxiety is a great contagin, so I need to be mindful of my own worries when I work with Tyoma. I’ll take a page from your book and find some wonder in the experience. If I can look at it that way, as a magical place filled with incredible technology and smart specialists, it’s Willy wonka enough to be fun.

      I really appreciate you dropping by! Thank you Angel! 🙂


  6. My husband grinds his teeth at night and has been prescribed two different custom nightguards (expensive!), but refuses to wear them. His teeth are actually almost perfectly flat. The dentist says he is slowly grinding them down, but well, it’s his mouth. If he’s chopping away really loudly at night, I’ll wake him and tell him, but otherwise I consider it his business since he’s an adult.
    My son did it while teething and he does it when he has a stuffy nose. They’re still his milk teeth, so I’m not so worried about them yet.

    1. Hi Kelly! I don’t like my (expensive) nightguard either. Blah! I respect you attitude towards your hubby, it’s the same my mom took with my Aspie-father-tooth grinder. My dad is 80 and his remaining teeth are pretty flat. He lost his molars due to wear about 18 months ago, but that was a good run for the amount of grinding and clacking he did. He’s doing great now. The only caution I would mention is to watch dental crowns. Dad and I ground through multiple dental crowns within a year. The dentist needs to take extra care when adjusting them–when Dad changed dentists it made a difference.

      My kiddo grinds much less than he used to, I think in part because his school days are less stressful.

      Thank you for sharing with me. I like hearing how other families deal with the same issues! 🙂

  7. *raises hand* NIght teeth grinder, too. I wore a night guard for years, too, at the urging of my dentist. It didn’t stop me grinding, just protected my teeth. In fact, it made me grind even more because something was in my mouth! All night! Approaching TMJ status at the time. I finally got rid of it. Luckily, the grinding has eased up and I’m okay with the occasional jaw cracking.

    Sorry about T’s molar. And about the jelly bean. My dentist told me to make sure to tell my kids that it’s not candy that causes cavities. He seemed rather insistent. 🙂

    1. Thanks Brenda! I feel the same way about a nightguard, a mini Hawthorne effect in my mouth! I blister my lip with it or dream that I’m strangling. Blah!

      Poor T had a total of three teeth molars removed, poor fellow. But he heals in the blink of an eye. It’s odd–he just lost a top tooth and three other teeth are loose. I feel so bad for him because he doesn’t express pain until it’s excruciating. I’ll be wearing my extra-patient pants for a while! 🙂

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