Answer: It sounds like you have been grinding your teeth for some time. The medical word for this is bruxism. It is very common for people to grind their teeth. Reasons include anxiety, poorly aligned or missing teeth, and sleep disorders such as sleep apnea.
As a dentist, I see signs of bruxism every day in my patients. As you said, tooth wear and breaking is one of the common side effects of grinding. This happens over the years, but when something breaks that is usually a sign that the bruxism may be serious. If teeth are severely worn or broken a conversation with your dentist is necessary. Express your concern and see what options are available to restore your teeth. These options include bonding tooth colored filling material, lab created restorations like crowns, or even extracting a tooth and replacing it with an implant.
Along with tooth wear and breaking, another side effect of bruxism is loosening teeth, especially if there is periodontal disease present. When you lose bone that supports the teeth in your jaw due to periodontal disease, grinding just exacerbates the problem. I have always used the analogy of loosening a fence post from the ground by knocking it around. It eventually loosens the soil around the post so that it lifts right out. The same thing happens to a tooth when you combine bone loss and grinding your teeth.
People who grind their teeth may also complain of frequent headaches and facial pain. When you grind, you are engaging the muscles that close your jaw. When these are squeezed for long periods of time they can cause pain and have even been attributed to migraines. People who have Temporomandibular Joint(TMJ) problems will have those problems worsened by grinding.
So what do you do? A thorough dental exam is a must. Your dentist has experience to know how to handle this. Some complicated cases may be referred to a specialist, but routine handling of bruxism is usually done by a general dentist. They may recommend a nightguard if you are grinding your teeth at night. This is a plastic guard that fits over the top or bottom teeth and acts as a shield so that you end up grinding the device rather than your teeth. It works well if you only grind at night. If you find that you are clenching or grinding during the day the dentist may want to help by referring you for chiropractic care or physical therapy. Relaxation techniques and exercises may be prescribed. In acute situations, medication may be prescribed. If restorative dentistry is required, the dentist may make a nightguard afterward to protect that investment.
Everyone experiences some wear on there teeth due to normal chewing over the years. If you see that you teeth are getting short, breaking, chipping or loosening, it may be a sign that something more serious is going on. Ask your dentist about it soon!