Some estimates suggest that more than 10 million Americans suffer from TMJ, a disorder in which the jaw joint is misaligned, creating tension and pain. And it’s no wonder that the disorder is so common — a new study shows that habits as seemingly harmless as chewing gum can put undue pressure on the temporomandibular joint and cause problems.
Swedish Study Identifies TMJ Risk Factors
Researchers from Sweden’s University of Gothenburg looked to high school students for information on whether or not certain oral habits increased the risk of developing TMJ. Their teen subjects were specifically monitored for habitual gum chewing, nail biting, and oral piercings, which many people are tempted to play with using their tongue or teeth.
The study included over a hundred high school students. They first completed a questionnaire about their habits and whether or not they experience symptoms common to TMJ. Then the students underwent a clinical examination of their jaws and tooth wear.
Nearly every student said they chew gum, with one in four students chewing gum at least daily. Most of those daily chewers spend hours each day chewing gum. One in seven of the students involved in the study had at least one oral piercing. Nail biting was less common, but was also measured for.
The results indicated a clear link between all three oral habits and symptoms of TMJ. Students who chewed gum frequently were more likely to report difficulty opening the mouth, headaches, and jaw pain centralized in the joints and muscles used during gum chewing. These are also common symptoms of TMJ, and indicate that regular gum chewing creates tension in the jaw, exposing the complex jaw joint system to damage.
Researchers found a similar correlation between nail biting and TMJ symptoms, although a smaller portion of the sample size practiced this habit. Nail biters reported headaches and displayed more tooth wear than students who left their fingernails alone. Oral piercings showed a positive link, too: Students with oral piercings reported headaches, as well as soreness in the jaw joints and muscles.
Not Just a Risk for Teens
The Swedish study focused on teens, but oral habits like chewing gum, playing with piercings, or biting nails can put stress on anyone’s jaw. The temporomandibular joint is part of a complex, carefully balanced system designed to provide your jaw with the maximum potential for movement, and the strength to handle repetitive chewing, day in and day out. Flexibility and strength can’t always coexist neatly — the high percentage of people who suffer from TMJ are testament to that.
The best way to keep the stress off your jaw is to eliminate habits like these that risk putting tension into your joints. Cutting down or eliminating gum chewing can give your jaw a break, and if you don’t want to remove oral piercings, it may at least be a good idea to pay attention to how often you are manipulating them with the tongue or teeth. As for nail biting, some women report that getting manicures can help prevent the habit.
No matter the tactic, it’s important to reduce or stop habits that put your jaw at risk. Once the temporomandibular joint has sustained damage, there’s no going back. Your dentist can help treat symptoms and realign the jaw, but the best treatment is prevention.