My Life as a Teeth Grinder

All my life I’ve had terrible nightmares about my teeth falling out. The funny thing about these dreams is that it’s never the same nightmare twice. Sometimes, just one tooth will pop neatly out. Sometimes, my teeth fall out one at a time after a period of psychologically agonizing looseness. Still other times, my teeth disintegrate into powder inside my mouth. Usually, there’s some attempt on my part to recover my intact smile. In my dreams, I’ll try to force the tooth back into my gums, or I’ll try frantically to get to an emergency dentist before all my teeth are gone. I probably don’t need to tell you that I never win in these dreams.

Once I got old enough to realize that not everyone has nightmares about loosing teeth (in fact, I seemed to be the only one), I tried to figure out what my dreams might mean. I consulted dream book after dream book, many of which didn’t list “teeth” or “losing teeth” as entries. The books that did mention teeth claimed I was experiencing a loss of power or financial stability in my waking life.

The dream book diagnosis didn’t seem to fit, because I had these nightmares regularly. Whether I felt rich and powerful or broke and helpless in my waking hours, I regularly experienced the nightmares about losing my teeth a few times a month.

When I was seventeen, my worst nightmares came true. My front teeth became loose enough to wiggle with my finger, and I was terrified my dreams had been a prophecy. I made an appointment to see my dentist as soon as possible.

When I went to my dentist’s office to explain my problem, I never actually saw my dentist. The dental hygienist that did examine me told me that my wisdom teeth were coming in and pushing my other teeth closer to the front of my mouth. She seemed to think this was great for me, because it was a completely free way to fix the gap I used to have between my front teeth.

I had refused orthodontics as child because I liked that strange gap between my teeth. When I bit into apples, my front teeth made two neat little indents into the flesh with a strip of apple skin between them. It also felt neat to stick things like bent straws into that gap. But, my gap was fated to disappear. Today, I only have the slightest ghost of a space between my two front teeth, and my smile looks fairly ordinary.

My dental hygienist also thought that the stress my emerging wisdom teeth were creating inside my mouth was causing me to grind my teeth in my sleep. She sent me home with some dippy advice: “Buy one of those art calendars and look at it before you go to sleep at night so you’ll relax and stop grinding your teeth.” She also told me to avoid drinking out of ceramic mugs and glass bottles, because one bump might cause a loose tooth to fall out.

Terrified little me left the dentist’s office feeling pretty low, although I did try the stupid calendar trick with no success. When my teeth became even looser, I went back to the same dentist’s office. The dental hygienist admonished me for not doing my calendar exercises and told me if I didn’t try harder to stop grinding my teeth, I’d lose all my teeth before I turned 20.

Well, that scared me to the point I couldn’t fall asleep, petrified that my teeth grinding would turn my nightmares into reality. At this point, my mother realized what had started as a minor problem was quickly turning into a medical emergency. Looking at a calendar had nothing to do with grinding my teeth until they fell out, and she quickly got a recommendation for a new dentist from one of her friends.

The new dentist agreed to see me right away, and she was the first person I saw when I got to her office. I told her everything my last “dentist” had said, from the new wisdom teeth pushing the rest of my teeth forward to the teeth grinding I couldn’t seem to stop. When my new dentist examined my teeth, she said that I’d been grinding them very badly. She was appalled that another dentist would try to treat it as a psychological defect and not a medical issue.

My new dentist did several things for me that day. First, she gave me “bite adjustment.” Because I’d been grinding my teeth so much, I could no longer close my jaw without my teeth banging together. My dentist explained that this is something that happens quite frequently in people who grind their teeth because grooves get worn in new places and the teeth shift to fit into them.

The bite adjustment procedure was quite simple and completely painless. She took a small drill device and took off a tiny bit of enamel on the backsides of a few of my teeth. It sounded and looked scary, but it was over very quickly and I could once again bring my top and bottom teeth together without pain.

The next thing my dentist did was fit me for a bite guard that I could wear while I was sleeping. She explained that it would look very much like a mouth guard that athletes wear, and that when I ground my teeth at night I would be chewing on plastic (which doesn’t do any damage like teeth grinding). She told me that the bite guard would also train me to hold my teeth in a certain place while I slept, and eventually I wouldn’t need it at all anymore.

The most important thing my new dentist did for me that day, though, was talk to me like a human being. She recognized my teeth grinding as a legitimate problem that needed an immediate solution, and didn’t treat me like a defective person for grinding my teeth in the first place.

Today, I’m firmly in my mid-twenties and still have all my original teeth. None of them are even slightly loose, and I no longer wear a bite guard to sleep. A part of me will always consider myself a teeth grinder, though. I know I have to be extra careful when I have a lot of stress in my life, and I’ve occasionally broken out the old bite guard for things like finals week at school. I’ve had a couple of teeth grinding relapses, but it’s been a couple of years since my last episode.

I learned an awful lot from my experience. Teeth grinding is a serious medical problem that deserves to be taken seriously by your dentist. If left untreated, teeth grinding can cause problems with your teeth, your bite, and your jaw; not to mention the terrible headaches you’ll experience in the morning. If you suspect you grind your teeth at night, see your dentist immediately. There are ways to treat teeth grinding and prevent it in the future.

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