'I felt like I'd done three rounds with Mike Tyson ... all because I was grinding my teeth in my sleep'
Last updated at 10:45 PM on 21st December 2009
Earlier this year, I woke up with the mother of all toothaches. It was not just an uncomfortable twinge, it felt like I'd had a nocturnal tussle with a champion boxer and lost.
The whole right-hand side of my jaw was tender and aching, while the tendons down either side of my neck felt taut and uncomfortable. I couldn't eat my morning muesli without wincing because every time I chewed a dull pain shot up my back molars.
I went to the dentist with my jaw in my hand and my heart in my mouth. Having Googled my symptoms, I feared the worst. Mouth cancer, perhaps? Gum disease, maybe? An extraction at the very least.
Life's a grind: Lucy McDonald's teeth grinding habit was caused by stress
After a routine examination and a chat about my symptoms, my dentist diagnosed bruxism. This alone brought me out in a cold sweat. My illness was so serious it had a Greek name.
Thankfully, bruxism sounds scarier than it is. The word comes from the Greek ebryxa (to gnash) and is the medical term for involuntary teeth grinding or jaw clenching, typically during sleep. Experts say it is an unconscious way to release stress or anger, while bruxism in children is often linked to breathing difficulties caused by adenoid and tonsil problems.
Although I was relieved to not be at death's door, I admit to feeling a little deflated.
Teeth grinding is not the most feminine of traits, nor is it dramatic enough to be worthy of pity.
Bruxism affects one in ten of us at some point. At worst it can break teeth - I've cracked two back molars in a year - and wear down enamel, as well as causing jaw problems, head and earaches, sensitive teeth and disrupting sleep.
It is most common in my age group - 25 to 44-year-olds. Dentists report anecdotal evidence that the recession has caused us to gnash and grind like never before.
Marianne Dashwood, from support group the Bruxism Association, says: 'Typically it happens at night, but some people grind their teeth or clench them in the day, too, and that can be debilitating. Normally, it's a short-term problem often caused by anxiety, but some people suffer all the time.'
Bruxists are divided into grinders and clenchers and, according to my dentist, I am the latter.
It occurs when I am awake or asleep but, instead of the more commonly known grinding, I clench my teeth so hard that sometimes it feels like they could shatter or that only a crowbar could prise my rigid jaws apart.
Flying high: Hypnosis helped Lucy overcome bruxism
Bruxism put hundreds of pounds of pressure on the teeth. Typically, chewing exerts 20lb to 40lb, but the pressure from grinding or clenching can be 250lb or more.
Dr Nigel Carter, from the British Dental Health Foundation, says: 'Bruxism exerts a huge force on teeth and it's something dentists are treating more frequently. Many people don't realise they're doing it. I've seen teeth worn down to gum level through repeated grinding.'
My bruxism started after having my second child, last April. Although I felt blissed out with my enlarged brood, the toll of sleepless nights and juggling family life was subconsciously affecting me.
U.S. studies suggests there is a hormonal link, although experts are not sure why. Dr Carter says: 'It's common for women to get bruxism around the menopause, pregnancy and adolescence or certain stages of the menstrual cycle.
More research is needed, but the combination of stress and hormones could raise the chances of women suffering from it.'
Bruxism can also be the result of missing teeth, a new filling or an abnormal bite.
Treatments range from sedatives, to help relax the jaw, to herbal remedies and even electric shocks.
Only three are recognised by the Bruxism Association as being effective: mandibular advancement devices (MADs), hypnosis and occlusal splints - brace-like devices - or mouth-guards.
MADs are made from two plastic plates, held together by a screw, which fit over the teeth at night to prevent them from meeting, making grinding or clenching impossible.
It sounded like torture, and even the Bruxism Association said MADs can take six weeks to get used to.
They can also cause dribbling. My dentist, however, recommended a mouthguard. These act as a buffer between the teeth. They protect the teeth from premature wear, reduce jaw muscle activity and the noise of grinding. But they only treat the symptom - the gnashing - not the cause - the stress.
I was full of hope the first night I wore my guard, but I hated it. Swallowing was uncomfortable and, after a week, I binned it. No one was more relieved than my husband. Mouthguards are a passion-killer.
Although they protect teeth from further damage, they do not help break the clenching habit, so I was back to square one.
I tried a technique, recommended by a tooth-grinding friend, which involved hugging a hot water bottle against my cheeks. But while it offered some relief, it was not a cure.
I considered extreme treatments such as Botox - which relaxes the jaw muscles that might be involved in jaw clenching, but it is not recommended by the Bruxism Association and, at £200 for each session, which needs to be repeated every four months, it was expensive.
I also read about clinical trials for a remedy called Grindcare. This is a small device worn on the temple, which gives users a mild - and unfelt - electric shock when grinding, relaxing the muscles.
The pressure's on: Bruxism is most common in 25-44 year-olds and affects one in 10 people
Dr David Vivian, a dentist from Hull, is testing it on his patients and says early results are encouraging - but the treatment is not yet readily available. Instead, I
decided to tackle the underlying problem of stress.
According to stress expert Chris Clarke, from support group the International Stress Management Association, the face is a prime target for tension. 'The jaw is one of the main parts of the body for holding stress,' he says.
'We often feel tight in the shoulders or neck when we're anxious, but the jaw is badly affected, too, and this can cause bruxism.'
I decided to try hypnosis, a stressbusting technique and, two months ago, I found Veronica Witter - a hypnotherapist of 20 years with an impressive 11 letters after her name - through the British Society of Clinical Hypnosis.
Veronica says: 'Hypnosis is a natural, pleasant state and it can be used to treat many conditions such as phobias, anxiety and bruxism.'
During a pre-session chat, we pinpointed my anxiety to worrying about lack of shuteye. My baby was still waking at night and I was exhausted. The less sleep I got, the more I fretted; and the more I fretted, the more I clenched; and the more I clenched, the more stressed and the less sleep I got. I was a living vicious circle.
Hypnosis was relaxing, although nothing like I had imagined. Veronica didn't once say: 'You're feeling very sleepy' (I almost felt shortchanged) and, instead, I snoozed as her soothing voice told me I could cope with anything and that my clenching days were over.
She also taught me relaxation techniques. 'Often people with bruxism aren't breathing properly,' she says. 'In order for the body to get enough oxygen, you need to breath deeply through the nose and from the bottom of the tummy. If you're not breathing properly, it's harder to manage stress.'
Now, whenever I feel tense, I practise deep breathing and automatically feel more chilled out.
My Eureka moment came when Veronica told me to replace thinking 'What if?' with 'So what?'
She said there was no point worrying about what I couldn't control - like my daughter's sleeping.
I had four hour-long sessions (at £70 each) and, after the first, my jaw felt looser and nimbler than it had in months, but a few more sleepless nights put paid to that.
It was not until the last treatment - of deeper hypnosis - that the difference was profound. I no longer wake with jaw-ache and my days of resembling Bruce Forsyth are thankfully long gone.
It has been hard work, though, and if I forget to breathe properly or my stress levels rise it starts again.
It is, however, a million times better and I now retrospectively realise what a strain it was. To use a cliche, it now feels like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. Or should that be my jaws?
• British Society Of Clinical Hypnosis, www.bsch.org.uk; Veronica Witter, 01707 874489; Bruxism Association, www.bruxism.org.uk