When it comes to dental appliances, night guards are similar to retainers in popularity. Yet, there are so many misconceptions about these little tools that make it confusing for those who might want to use them.
Night guards are often mistaken for sports mouthguards, TMJ stabilizers, and even retainers. But they have a duty unique to all of those other oral devices. (For more about the differences in these appliances, check out this article by JS Dental Lab.)
So what exactly is a night guard, and what does it do? The answers to those and other commonly asked questions are covered here.
1. What is — and Isn’t — a Night Guard Used For?
Let’s say you’re concerned because you think one of your teeth is getting a little crooked, and you want to push it back in place. You wouldn’t use a night guard for that.
Or you’re heading out to play a contact sport, and you want to protect your teeth from potential damage. That’s not the purpose of a night guard, either.
Bruxism and Night Guards
Night guards — when appropriately fitted — don’t shift your teeth. They can’t keep them safe if you’re knocked in the face by a projectile, whether a ball or a person. What they are designed to do is to keep your upper and lower teeth from touching while you’re sleeping and grinding together.
This behavior, bruxism, occurs in almost one in ten adults and many children. It’s characterized by jaw clenching and teeth grinding, which causes your jaw muscles to overwork and damages tooth enamel. Over time, this leads to problems like headaches, facial pain, TMJ (temporomandibular joint) issues, and other serious conditions.
A night guard is made from food-grade materials that prevent the jaw from gaining traction. Your muscles get to relax overnight, and everything connected gets a much-needed reprieve to heal.
2. What About Using a Night Guard For My TMJ?
TMJ and bruxism are often interlinked, partly because one can lead to the other and partly because the symptoms often overlap.
Your temporomandibular joint is a tiny, delicate body part responsible for heavy-duty lifting. Any time your jaw moves, your TMJ is moving. When you brux, this little part is under severe stress. Damage to the TMJ leads to TMDs — temporomandibular joint disorders. There are many kinds of these conditions, each with unique symptoms and onsets.
But an inflamed TMJ doesn’t necessarily mean you have a disorder. It could be a temporary condition caused by too much stress on your joint, which can be helped with a night guard. So, if your jaw has just begun to show discomfort, wearing this device might be all you need to fix the symptoms.
However, if there’s a serious derangement or displacement, you’ll need a TMJ specialist to stabilize and reposition the joint. In those situations, wearing a night guard improperly can add stress to the joint and worsen your symptoms.
3. How Do I Know if I Need a Night Guard?
Trying to self-prescribe the perfect solution to your conditions can be challenging. It’s much easier if your dentist told you there’s obvious wear-and-tear and signs of bruxing and suggested a night guard.
But if you’re trying to avoid that step, you can ask yourself a few questions to try to decide if a night guard is a wise idea, like:
- Am I waking up with headaches frequently?
- Is there discomfort in my neck, shoulders, jaw, or face (or all of them)?
- Do I have increased sensitivity in my teeth lately?
- Am I getting plenty of sleep, but I still feel tired all the time?
- Is there something stressful going on in my life?
If most or all of those answers are yes, you could be bruxing without realizing it. If you have no serious dental issues, sleep apnea, or TMDs, a well-made night guard may solve your symptoms.
4. Why Do I Need a Custom Night Guard?
We’ll cut straight to the chase here. The quickest, cheapest path to a night guard is over-the-counter at your local drugstore. There, you’ll find one-size-fits-all ready-made appliances and boil-and-bite options that you can mold to your bite within minutes.
But the downside to these cheap-and-easy fixes is that the appliances aren’t designed to fit your mouth. Even the boil-and-bite devices don’t cover all the nooks and crannies special to you.
Because of the off-fit, wearing these night guards can make your problems worse, stimulating your jaw to grind instead of relaxing. A custom-made, high-quality guard slides over each minor gap or crack in your teeth, letting your jaws rest evenly as they’re supposed to.
Cheaper materials are easier to grind through, too. Rather than replacing a store-bought night guard every few weeks or months, investing in a well-designed appliance that will last years is more cost-effective.
Night guards may look like other oral appliances, but they have a special job. If you’re a bruxer or your TMJ problems might be helped with these little appliances, be sure to use a custom-made device designed for your teeth. You should notice a difference in your symptoms quickly with consistent use!