Most people are entirely unaware of how their tongue can affect their teeth, and they’re even less aware of how their tongue behaves in their mouth on a day-to-day basis. Tongue behavior can be compared to that of blinking or breathing; we don’t really think about it; it’s almost as though the body has its own instinctual impulse. The mouth and tongue work together as a team making sure the process of chewing and ingesting food goes smoothing, as well as producing and swallowing saliva. However, when the relationship between tongue, mouth, and jaw is not functioning properly, often teeth bear the brunt of it.
Orofacial myofunctional disorder
Usually referred to as OMD, orofacial myofunctional disorder is a very common condition where the tongue is thrust against the back of teeth due to swallowing muscles being imbalanced. The problem lies in that fact that the tongue is an incredibly strong muscle in the body, though often overlooked. When it moves incorrectly, it can cause damage to teeth and gums for various reasons. OMD is most often attributed to ‘tongue thrusting.’ People who deal with this are also often mouth breathers, suffer from lisps, sinus issues, and sucked their thumbs as children well beyond tooth development years.
The following are signs and symptoms of improper tongue positioning:
- Improper swallowing
- Sleep apnea
- Vision problems
- Crowding of teeth
- Gaps between teeth
- Irregular bite
- Grinding of teeth
- Excessive tooth decay
- Recessed chin
- Flat face shape
- Head thrusted forward
- Neck pain
- Frequent headaches
The constant pressure from the tongue over some time can cause teeth to shift forward causing an amalgam of issues.
Teeth shifting: The muscle acts as orthodontic devices do, over time, the pressure the tongue puts on the back of both front and bottom teeth can cause the natural bite pattern and teeth to shift forward. Most tongue thrusters push forward with their tongue every time they swallow. Imagining how many times a person swallows in the span of 24 hours, multiplied by days in years, it adds up to a lot of pressure.
Gaps between teeth: Unless someone already has jaw issues, they may have well-aligned teeth already, but these teeth can be pushed forward due to tongue thrusting. As they are shifted forward, they are also moved apart. This can happen to people who previously had braces or orthodontic devices that ‘set’ their teeth in place and filed down to fit a specific bite pattern, reducing the size of teeth. This is one reason why retainers are important to wear after braces are removed!
Open bite: Most people who think they have ‘buck teeth’ are actually dealing with an open bite caused by OMD. While this issue may be addressed early on with orthodontics, but once the braces are removed, the thrusting will take over again and likely undo and reverse the effects the corrective braces. The tongue is strong, and over time, it will conquer even braces are worn more than once.
Dealing with OMD
Myofunctional therapy is the best approach for OMD and patients dealing with ‘tongue thrust.’ Teeth can only be corrected so many times; the underlying issue of the tongue will always prevail unless it is dealt with directly. OMD causes the tongue to rest incorrectly and causes the tongue to push forward when swallowing. In a normal functioning mouth, the tongue should rest gently on the roof of the mouth. When swallowing, it should move in a ‘wave-like’ motion from the front to the back of the mouth, moving food and drink towards the throat.
While orthodontic treatment is usually needed to correct the effects of OMD, the therapy is still needed. This treatment involves mouth and tongue exercises that help retrain the muscles to function correctly. There are some dental and orthodontic professionals who can work together to create a multifaceted treatment plan to deal with OMD based on an individual patient’s condition and overall issues caused by tongue thrust.
There are many benefits of proper tongue technique that can be achieved through therapy:
Sleep better: Many people with OMD don’t realize that the condition is connected to sinus issues. Once OMD is diagnosed by a professional, patients can move forward to explore other causes that may lead to it, such as sinusitis or even a deviated septum.
Look better: Believe it or not, proper tongue technique can lead to a better profile, cheekbones, and more defined jawline. Proper tongue placement can also prevent crooked or crowded teeth. People who often think they have a double-chin are really dealing with improper tongue posture!
Feel better: When your tongue is in the right place, you are less likely to deal with tension headaches or TMJ. Jaw pain can lead to even worse factors like grinding or clenching of the teeth. This can wear down gums and teeth that are impacted causing other issues.
Exercises to Try
- To get a better idea of the shape of your mouth and where your tongue should be, use the tip of your tongue to fell the roof of your mouth where the ‘ridges’ behind. As the roof slopes, that’s where your tongue should lie flat, instead of pushing up against your front teeth.
- Find where the back of your tongue should rest by grinning widely with your eyebrows raised. Swallow while clenching your teeth, the area where you feel the back of your tongue pressing against the roof of your mouth is where you want it to be.
Try these exercises multiple times a day until you feel you’re developing some muscle memory. Hopefully, you will soon be able to feel the difference as muscle memory kicks in after repeating these exercises for several weeks.
Schedule an appointment to speak with a dentist about OMD if you think you’re affected. There are more than exercises available as a way to remedy this malalignment to achieve a better balance in your mouth. Your teeth, gums, and jaw will thank you!