If you are one of the ten million people in the U.S. who suffers from temporomandibular joint disorder or bruxism, and if you find yourself waking up with an aching jaw, a stiff neck, and a headache, a night guard may be able to help.

Do night guards work?

Night guards are a dental appliance that can help relieve pain and tension in the jaw due to a number of common disorders. A night guard is a thin mouthpiece that is custom-fitted by your dentist. Similar to the mouth guard that athletes wear, it holds your jaw in place at night and can prevent grinding teeth and clenching of the jaw.

While it is possible to use an over-the-counter night guard as a stopgap measure for immediate, temporary relief, the custom night guard you get at the dentist will be more effective in the long-term.

When you get fitted for one of these devices, your dentist will take a mold of your teeth. They send the mold to a laboratory that makes your night guard out of thin, rigid plastic. Unlike over-the-counter guards, your dental night guard is less cumbersome and bulky. This makes it more comfortable for you to wear. The material of a custom device also discourages chewing while it is being worn.

A night guard has many different purposes. Its most important function is to prevent further damage and wear to the teeth and jaw. It treats two main conditions: TMJ and clenching.

Night guard for TMJ

Dental guards are commonly prescribed for people who suffer from temporomandibular joint disorder (usually abbreviated as TMJ but technically known as TMD).

The sliding temporomandibular joint connects your jawbone to your skull. When stressed over time, this joint can become painful and inflamed. Temporomandibular joint disorder causes pain in the jaw, neck, and shoulders and can have serious dental consequences. In some cases, TMJ can lead to a dislocated or locked jaw.

Night guards for TMJ are also referred to as splints. Made of rigid acrylic, night guards for TMJ keep the teeth slightly separated and reposition the jaw to relieve the pressure on the temporomandibular joint. These must be custom fit to each patient, as the level of correction needed varies from person to person.

Additionally, the hard plastic of a custom device seems to deter biting or clenching, a common cause of TMJ. Because they are made of soft, chewy plastic, an over-the-counter guard may actually increase nighttime gnawing. Over-the-counter night guards have not been shown to effectively treat symptoms of TMJ for any period of time.

In general, research on the effectiveness of a night guard for TMJ is mixed. Some sources seem to say that a night guard is not effective. Others point out that the fit will determine whether it works. Ultimately, the best treatment will address the underlying cause of the TMJ while relieving jaw pain and tightness. Talk to your dentist if you think one could help with your TMJ.

Night guard for clenching

Bruxism is a condition of clenching the jaw and grinding the teeth. The effects of bruxism are serious and include:

A night guard for clenching may not solve the issue that led to clenching in the first place, but it will protect the surface of your teeth from more wear and pressure. A review of research on bruxism found that dental guards were the most commonly prescribed treatment for bruxism.

Approximately half of patients saw a significant decrease in bruxism at night. The guard seems to remind patients not to clench, while at the same time protecting teeth from damage in those who clench or grind in spite of the guard.

Another study confirmed that a dental night guard for clenching does not necessarily fix the habit but minimizes the damage. While you are looking for and treating the cause of clenching or grinding, a night guard can help keep your teeth healthy.

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