Breaking the Cycle of Bruxism

All of the possible methods for reducing or eliminating bruxism can be thought of as different ways of breaking the cycle of (or interrupting the pattern of) clenching and grinding. In the fields of psychology, hypnosis, and neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), anything which breaks a repetitive habitual cycle is called a “pattern interrupt”. It may not be obvious at first that such diverse ways of dealing with bruxism as chiropractic treatments, dental mouth guards, hypnosis, and changing one’s diet all have something in common, but they do. They are all pattern interrupts. To see this clearly, let’s take a closer look at the nature of the pattern which all these things interrupt.

The Nature of the Bruxism Cycle

Let’s take a look at the neurological and psychological nature of the bruxism cycle. The amount of things which can be involved in the cycle can be quite complex, ranging at the physical end from the type of sensation a given person gets from teeth clenching, to psychological circumstances, physical circumstances, state of health, stress, memories, beliefs, etc.. Before we can see clearly what types of things could constitute a pattern interrupt, it makes sense to delve a little bit into some modern understandings of how the brain is wired.

Let’s look at a cycle of habitual teeth clenching. In this example, we will start somewhere in the middle of the cycle. It really doesn’t matter where we begin, because the cycle eventually brings us back around to the same place. Just for the sake of example, let’s suppose we start at a moment when your clenching your teeth. We will assume here that you are clenching your teeth subconsciously and habitually, not as part of some epileptic-type neurological incident. While you are clenching your teeth, there are neurons in your brain firing, sending electrical signals to your jaw muscles, which caused those muscles to contract.

But there’s actually significantly more than that going on in the brain . The complex set of motor neurons which fire to command your jaw muscles to flex are typically activated by a smaller set of neurons, which are typically activated by a still smaller set of neurons. Modern research has even revealed that some complex muscle actions actually start with the firing of a single neuron which the brain has “programmed” to initiate a complex action.

So let’s suppose we’re looking at a complicated action (like clenching your teeth) which is initiated by the firing of one particular neuron. The story becomes even more interesting when we look at what it takes to fire that particular neuron. We know that “intentionally clenching your teeth” is one way to do that. When you intentionally clench your teeth, you in some sense first “imagine clenching your teeth”. The act of imagining clenching your teeth actually comes very close to delivering a signal to that neuron which would start the clenching action, but it doesn’t quite get there.

Have you ever been by yourself, imagining saying something to someone, and then at some point words actually started coming out of your mouth without you consciously intending to speak? Most of us have had experiences like this. When an experience like this happens, what has happened is that the brain has subconsciously opened the last little gateway between the “end” of the neuron firing pattern which constitutes the “imagining”, and the “beginning” neuron which sets in motion a particular complex action (such as clenching your teeth, or speaking a particular word).

The neuron firing pattern which constitutes the “imagining” doesn’t have to be (and often is not) conscious. For example most of us have habitual verbal reactions to certain situations (such as being cut off in traffic), and a word or words come out of our mouths without any conscious thought at all. In fact, sometimes, it takes quite a bit of conscious thought to turn off such habitual reactions under circumstances where they are not appropriate.

Now let’s return to the example of someone in the midst of a cycle of habitual teeth clenching. As the clenching is taking place, as at most times, chances are there are an enormous number of subconscious processes happening in the mind, and neurological signals coming from all over the body providing input which may or may not be used by the subconscious processes. Unlike the conscious mind, which can only think about one thing at a time, the subconscious mind can simultaneously process and act on many things at once.

For instance, when you learn to drive a car it is impossible at first to simultaneously pay attention to keeping your car in the correct lane, keeping the car going at the desired speed, keeping an eye on what other cars are doing, etc.. This is an impossible task to the conscious mind, but once the subconscious mind gets trained to do each of these things, it has no problem doing them all at once, leaving your conscious mind free to have a conversation with the person sitting next to you at the same time.

Returning once again to our example of someone in the midst of a cycle of habitual teeth clenching, we can imagine that many subconscious processes may be going on during this teeth clenching. Sensory input from the five senses (or memories of sensory input) may feed into any or all of those subconscious processes. This big complex jumble of mental things which are going on is almost all subconscious even if the clenching person is awake, and if the clenching person is asleep, it could all be said to be subconscious.

So here we have a person with an enormous number of subconscious processes going on, and a myriad of sensory input coming in and feeding these processes, and as part of all this some subset of the enormous amount of stuff which is going on leads a neuron to fire which causes the action of teeth clenching. When the teeth clenching action happens some combination of the sensory input which comes back as a result of the teeth clenching (for instance sensory input from the sensory nerves in teeth, jaw muscles, etc.) feeds into the whole swirl of neurological activity which is going on in such a way as to increase the clenching activity, and there we have the cycle complete.

Now that we have the big picture of what the clenching cycle looks like, we can ask ourselves the question “how can we interrupt this cycle?” One answer which might come to mind is “how the heck should I know?”. With all those subconscious processes going on at the same time, and different subconscious processes and different sensory input for each person, maybe what it would take to interrupt the cycle for different people could be quite different.” And that is indeed the case. There are a great variety of techniques ranging from the purely physical techniques, to the purely mental techniques, to environmental and circumstantial techniques, to pharmacological techniques, any one of which (or any combination of which) may be effective for a particular individual and a particular set of circumstances.

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