Do You Know the Difference Between an Occlusal Guard and a Dental Orthotic

Do You Know the Difference Between an Occlusal Guard and a Dental Orthotic?

When you clench or grind your teeth there’s a couple of dental devices and treatment options that can really make a difference. The thing is: to the untrained eye occlusal guards and dental orthotics may look the pretty much the same, but they actually do very different things.

While both are options for grinding and clenching, one only prevents further damage from being done and the other can actually be the first step in helping elevate pain.

Why do people clench or grind their teeth?

First things first: it’s important to understand why you might be grinding your teeth. And there are a variety of potential reasons (which we covered in detail in our post, “Don’t Let Bruxism Destroy Your Teeth Or Your Health“), but one of the biggest reasons is that your bite is off.

This causes you to unconsciously (whether it be in your sleep or during the day) try to find a more comfortable position for your facial muscles.

When you habitually clench or grind, the enamel on your teeth starts to be worn down. Your teeth will become shorter and it’s very likely that you will also experience increased tooth sensitivity. But whether you currently have symptoms or not, doesn’t negate the damage that is being done to your precious teeth.

Which means that you should definitely do something.

What is an occlusal guard?

Occlusal guards help protect your teeth from wearing down, especially the contact (chewing) surfaces. Which means that it can only do its job while you are wearing it.

Occlusal guards are also called night guards and are made from a thin but strong material in order to cushion the teeth from tooth-to-tooth contact if you unconsciously grind your teeth and clench your jaw (called bruxism).

With the help of a night guard (that you wear while you sleep), the force and pressure are absorbed to break up any grinding and clenching you might unconsciously do. These guards simply help protect your teeth from the damage caused by bruxism and are custom-tailored to your mouth to maximize your comfort while wearing it.

Unfortunately, unconscious nighttime teeth grinding exerts a stronger jaw force than clenching in the daytime where you may notice and control it. Without a night guard, your bruxing could leave you with:

  • Broken teeth
  • A leveling or flattening of the teeth
  • Pain in the jaw, face, and head
  • Sensitive teeth
  • Gum recession

As you can imagine, this damage to your teeth and gums can be costly to fix, which costs you in additional pain, money, and time — which is why you should not wait to seek treatment.

While our experienced dentist, Dr. James Powell, offers excellent restorative treatments, including crowns, dental implants, dental bridges and dentures, we prefer preventative solutions to stop tooth and gum issues from the get-go. Also, keeping your own natural teeth is ideal when it comes to your smile, so we’re actively on the side of taking preventative measures rather than repairing damage after the fact.

Occlusal guards can be worn in the day but are mostly worn at night to protect your teeth, keeping them from breaking under the unfettered force of the clenching jaw muscles. And while that is great news, the jaw muscles are still actively grinding, which means the jaw, head, neck and shoulders can still leave you hurting.

So in short: an occlusal guard can help prevent further damage from being done to your teeth, but it will not stop you from grinding or clenching your teeth.

What is a dental orthotic?

A dental orthotic, however, can position your jaw to where the muscles are actually relaxed! That’s because it’s created to prevent grinding altogether, so your muscles can relax and allow you to sleep more soundly (even opening your airways so you can breathe better if you snore or have sleep apnea).

A dental orthotic, like a removable splint, is worn during the day and is designed to allow you to eat and speak and feel comfortable with it on. Dr. Powell often offers a dental orthotic to fix issues with TMJ/TMD when the bite is imbalanced.

This appliance can help relieve jaw soreness, stiffness, and pain. It can also help you if you struggle with ongoing facial pain, headaches, and earaches.

Without intervention, people with TMJ disorders can suffer from lockjaw or jaw joint pain. Tooth problems that can be alleviated by dental orthotics include bruxism as we’ve already discussed, and the accompanying wear and tear on the teeth that can leave you with shorter teeth and tooth sensitivity.

When creating your dental orthotic, Dr. Powell relies on computerized instruments that will accurately measure the proper position for your muscles. The teeth should work with the muscles for balance so they can be relaxed, preventing you from clenching and grinding. The outcome of such a balanced bite is a relief for the muscles and pain symptoms.

The dental orthotic can be clear, and in some cases be made to look like teeth. Either way, it’s not very noticeable, and if it isn’t a fixed orthotic, it can be taken out to cleaned.

To work effectively and consistently providing relief, your dental orthotic has to be worn around the clock, whether you are speaking, eating or sleeping.

How to find permanent relief from TMD symptoms?

If your symptoms do improve from wearing the orthotic, the next step is to shift your teeth into the proper position and actually relieve your symptoms.

That’s when Dr. Powell may recommend physiologic orthodontics, full-mouth rehabilitation (or a mix of the two), or possibly a semi-permanent dental orthotic. By monitoring your results and taking into account your specific oral health needs, Dr. Powell can help you find permanent relief from the symptoms of TMJ/TMD!


So now you know the difference between a dental orthotic and an occlusal guard! An occlusal guard protects the teeth while in your mouth to slow the rate of wear and tear on your teeth. That said, they don’t treat the cause per se and don’t do much to help with your symptoms of TMD. Basically the occlusal guard is a protection appliance.

While the orthotic is the first phase in giving you relief of any TMD symptoms you may be experiencing.

If you would like to schedule a consultation with Dr. Powell for help with your bruxing or TMJ/TMD issues, we recommend that you request a virtual consultation.

If you’d rather come to see us at our dental office in Palmdale CA, simply call 661-349-7725 to schedule an evaluation with Dr.Powell or you can book your visit online. You really don’t have to live with pain, and we can help you!

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