The Ultimate Guide to Occlusal Guards (Nightguards)

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Occlusal guards, also known as nightguards or bite splints, are removable dental appliances that fit over the teeth to prevent tooth damage from bruxism (teeth grinding and jaw clenching). Did you know that up to 15% of adults suffer from bruxism, which can lead to symptoms like jaw pain, headaches, and tooth sensitivity if left untreated? This comprehensive guide by Novudentics Prosthodontics will cover everything you need to know about occlusal guards, from types and benefits to cost and care.

What are Occlusal Guards?

Occlusal guards are molded appliances made of soft plastic that cover either the top or bottom teeth. They create a protective barrier between the upper and lower teeth to prevent tooth damage from bruxism as well as guide the jaw into proper alignment. Though occlusal guards don’t entirely prevent grinding and clenching, they are an effective solution to alleviate pain and symptoms. They can also reduce the progression of bruxism to protect long-term dental health.

Are Occlusal Guards and Nightguards the Same Thing?

Yes, occlusal guards and nightguards refer to the same type of dental appliance. The terms are used interchangeably to describe removable plastic mouthpieces that fit over either the upper or lower teeth.

Both occlusal guards and nightguards serve the same function – to protect the teeth, jaw muscles, and temporomandibular joints from damage caused by bruxism or teeth grinding/clenching habits, especially during sleep. They provide a cushion between the biting surfaces to absorb and diffuse the excessive forces exerted on the jaw and to guide proper realignment.

There may be slight differences in name depending on the manufacturer or intended use. For example, sports occlusal guards offer similar tooth/mouth protection but are designed specifically to prevent traumatic sports injuries. However, when referring to appliances used mainly for managing bruxism and alleviating issues like headaches or tooth pain upon waking, “occlusal guard” and “nightguard” are interchangeable terms for the same protective device.

Who Needs Occlusal Guards?

Those diagnosed with moderate to severe bruxism are prime candidates for occlusal guards, which are typically worn during sleep. Other indicators that you may benefit from an occlusal guard include:

  • Jaw pain or soreness
  • Headaches or earaches upon waking
  • Tooth sensitivity
  • Damaged or lost dental fillings
  • Cracked or broken teeth

Your dentist can best evaluate if an occlusal guard is right for you during a routine dental exam. They will check for early signs of bruxism like flattened teeth or excessive teeth wear.

How Do Occlusal Guards Work?

Occlusal guards are worn over teeth to create a protective barrier, preventing the upper and lower teeth from damaging contact during grinding and clenching. They absorb biting forces and guide the jaw into proper alignment, providing a cushion so the muscles can relax. Though they don’t completely eliminate bruxism, occlusal guards effectively reduce symptoms and tooth damage.

What Are Occlusal Guards Made Of?

Occlusal guards are made from bendable acrylic molded over a cast of your teeth for a customized fit. Some prosthodontists may also use plastics like ethylene vinyl acetate, polyurethane, or polycarbonate resins.

These durable yet comfortable materials effectively absorb biting force and facilitate realignment during grinding or clenching.

Check out this vide of the custom occlusal guard creation by Novudentics, located in Royal Palm Beach, Florida:

Benefits of Wearing Occlusal Guards

The consistent use of a properly fitted occlusal guard provides many oral health benefits:

  • Protects teeth from excessive wear, fractures, and loss
  • Prevents cavities and tooth decay
  • Reduces symptoms of bruxism like jaw pain and headaches
  • Allows damaged teeth time to heal and repair
  • Improves sleep quality
  • Saves on costly dental treatments

With routine use of an occlusal guard, you can halt and even reverse some damage caused by bruxism over time.

Types of Occlusal Guards

There are three main types of occlusal guards classified by materials used and manufacturing method:

  1. Stock or Ready-Made Guards: These are inexpensive, preformed guards that can be purchased over-the-counter at most drugstores or online in a limited size range. They are made of soft plastic and employ a “boil-and-bite” fitting process to adapt it to the general shape of your teeth.
  2. Custom-Formed Guards: These are fitted guards molded precisely from dental impressions to match your individual bite and anatomy. At Novudentics, we prefer only custom work – there is no better way to get a true, customized fit for your comfort. There are two types of custom guards:
  • Hard guards made from rigid acrylic resin that withstands severe bruxism
  • Soft guards of flexible Ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA) plastic or other polymers ideal for moderate bruxism
  1. Virtual Design Guards: Advanced digital scans eliminate the need for traditional impressions. These occlusal guards are 3D printed from biocompatible materials for precision fit through online dental providers. Costs are comparable to custom guards from a dentist.

Choosing the Best Occlusal Guard

Give us a call at 561-567-7880 to get a consultation for the creation of your own, customized occlusal guard. We can select an occlusal guard tailored your bruxism severity and needs. We will consider factors like the level of tooth and jaw pain you experience, visible tooth damage, guard cost, and lifestyle fit.

Caring for Your Occlusal Guard

Occlusal guards are meant to withstand bites and grinding. However, over time, they can become misshapen, promote bacteria buildup, or develop tears and holes from continual use. Proper care maximizes your guard’s lifespan and effectiveness. Follow your dentist or manufacturer’s instructions for cleaning, storage and regular replacement every 1-2 years.

When Should Occlusal Guards Be Changed?

It is generally recommended to replace occlusal guards (also called night guards) every 12-18 months for optimal protection and effectiveness. However, your dentist may advise replacing your occlusal guard sooner if you notice any of the following signs:

  • The plastic becomes torn, develops holes, or appears cracked/damaged from overuse. This compromises fit and grinding protection.
  • You experience discomfort or irritation while wearing the guard that you didn’t initially. This signals changes to your bite or teeth alignment that require a remake of the guard.
  • You wake up with jaw pain and tension or headaches again on a regular basis. This may indicate your old guard is no longer absorbing grinding/clenching forces properly due to material fatigue.
  • You can visibly see severe indentations and flattened areas along the surface of the plastic. Deep bite marks mean it has compressed past providing a protective buffer between your upper and lower teeth.
  • The plastic has become loose and ill-fitting over time. As you age, changes in tooth surfaces, dental work, or realignment of the jaw joint can all alter guard fit at the gumline.
  • Discoloration, a foul odor or accumulation of bacteria/plaque can happen despite diligent cleaning.


Left unchecked, bruxism causes chronic dental problems and destroys tooth enamel. Occlusal guards cushion against such damage to maintain healthy teeth and gums over time. If waking discomfort, jaw pain or tooth sensitivity plagues you, an occlusal guard may provide much-needed relief. Compare occlusal guard types and speak to your dentist to find the best solution tailored to your needs and lifestyle.

With consistent use as directed, you’ll soon enjoy improved sleep, a pain-free bite and confidence in your smile again.

Who Wrote This?


Dr. Kallithrakas (Dr. K) is the lead prosthodontist for Novudentics in Palm Beach, Florida. He obtained a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) and conducted a one year fellowship in Implant Dentistry sponsored by Biomet 3i at NOVA Southeastern University. Dr. K also has a Master in Science in which his thesis The difference in microgap between zirconia and titanium abutments; a pilot study was published.

Dr. K and his team at Novudentics have extensive training in all areas of prosthodontics, and serve patients across the United States from his Palm Beach office location. He believes that changing someone’s smile can help make a difference in many aspects of someone’s life.

Connect with Dr. Kallithrakas on Linkedin.

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