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Teeth are built tough. With regular care they can last a lifetime. Still, the daily grind of chewing, brushing, and grinding, along with accidental injuries, can take a toll. Here are three of the biggest threats, and what you can do to avoid them.

Chipped, Fractured, or Broken Teeth

Teeth can sometimes chip or fracture when you bite down on something hard, such as a popcorn kernel or stale bread. “But that kind of injury is actually quite uncommon,” says Steven E. Schonfeld, DDS, PhD, a dentist in private practice and spokesman for the American Dental Association.  

Teeth that have fillings or root canals are at highest risk, because they aren't as strong as intact teeth. “But even intact teeth can chip or fracture if you happen to bite down in just the wrong way on something hard,” Schonfeld says.

More often, teeth are damaged as a result of accidents or sports injuries. When researchers surveyed athletes competing in the Pan American World Games recently, they found that almost half showed signs of tooth fractures believed to have occurred over time during training or competing. In that study, sports most commonly associated with tooth injuries included wrestling, boxing, basketball, and karate. But even noncontact sports such as in-line skating and skiing can result in damage to teeth.

What you can do: If you have fillings in your back molars, it's wise to avoid biting down on hard foods such as bones, hard candies, and ice. Wear a mouth guard if you play sports that pose a risk of injury, and get them for your kids who play sports. A 2002 survey of college basketball players found that mouth guard wearers significantly reduced their risk of dental injuries. Simple mouth guards are available at most sporting goods stores. Your dentist can also make a custom-fitted mouth guard.

A dentist can repair chipped teeth. Fractures are harder to fix, especially if the crack extends below your gum line. If you have a badly fractured tooth, your dentist may remove it.

Bruxism: Grinding Your Teeth

Teeth are built to chew and grind food. But unconscious grinding or clenching of teeth, over time, can damage the chewing surfaces. “Chronic tooth grinding, called bruxism, can cause micro-cracks in the enamel, making teeth more susceptible to decay, and even wear down the pointed surfaces of molars,” says Anthony M. Iacopino, PhD, dean of the University of Manitoba Faculty of Dentistry.

Tooth grinding can also cause headaches, muscle pain, and jaw injury. In many cases, people with bruxism don't realize they have a problem until a dentist notices tell-tale signs on their tooth surfaces. That's one more good reason to get checkup every six months, Iacopino says.

Researchers suspect that stress or anger may lead to tooth grinding. A 2010 study found that people with sleep bruxism were more likely than people who don't grind their teeth to report trouble at work, daily problems, and physical problems.

What you can do: Stress management techniques may help. “I tell my patients who have signs of tooth grinding to find ways to relax,” Declan Devereux, DDS, says. “Take a walk. Learn to meditate. Avoid stressful or frustrating situations if possible.” For some patients, that may be enough to ease tooth grinding. If not, dentists may prescribe a mouth guard or splint, which fits over the upper or lower teeth, protecting them from becoming damaged.

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