Becky Larson, RDH
Oral Parafunctional Habits
We all need to move our jaw and teeth to do normal everyday activities such eating, talking, and breathing. However, some individuals use their teeth and/or jaw for other purposes, which are not considered normal activities. A para-functional habit is the habitual exercise of a body part in a way other than the most common use of that body part. Some oral para-functional habits include clenching or grinding the teeth (bruxism), tongue thrusting, and thumb sucking. Oral para-functional habits can cause problems with the teeth and/or jaw and should be addressed as soon as they are discovered.
Clenching or grinding of the teeth is referred to as bruxism. Teeth are meant to clench and grind during the process of mastication (eating) but not in the absence of food. Occasional teeth grinding doesn’t usually cause harm. However, grinding on a regular basis can cause extensive damage to the teeth as well as other oral health complications. Grinding can be caused by stress and anxiety but occurs most often during sleep. Because of this, most people are unaware they grind their teeth. Symptoms of bruxism include a dull, constant headache and/or a sore jaw upon waking up. Usually a spouse or loved one will also hear the grinding at night. Your dentist can examine your teeth and jaw for signs of bruxism. Chronic teeth grinding can result in tooth fractures, loosening of the teeth, tooth loss, or teeth worn down to stumps. In these cases the dentist may place bridges, crowns, implants or perform root canals. Severe grinding can cause pain in the temporomandibular joint (jaw joint). Wearing a mouth guard while you sleep can prevent excessive wear on the teeth. Having a custom fit mouth guard is the best option as it is made from impressions your own teeth. While a mouth guard does not stop the clenching and grinding from happening, it prevents wear on the teeth by putting a barrier between the biting surfaces of the teeth. Usually mouth guards will last a few years before needing to be replaced.
Tongue thrusting is where the tongue protrudes near or through the front teeth during swallowing, speech, or while the tongue is at rest. The correct position of the tongue should be on the roof of the mouth (or palate) when swallowing. Symptoms of tongue thrusting include:
- Dental malocclusion (teeth don’t align correctly)
- Poor facial development
- Mouth breathing
- Periodontal problems
- Other oral para-functional habits (bruxism and/or thumb sucking)
- Limited tolerance to food textures or limited diet
- Difficulty swallowing pills
- High palatal arch
Tongue thrusting can also be related to thumb sucking. Children often begin sucking thumbs or fingers at an early age. It is a reflex that provides comfort and relaxation and as such, many children practice this habit while sleeping. While this habit is generally stopped around 2-4 years of age, some children continue thumb or finger sucking into elementary school. Most dentists will advise to break this habit before permanent teeth begin to erupt. Pacifiers are great substitutes for thumbs and fingers because they can be taken away at the necessary time. Both tongue thrusting and thumb sucking can be detrimental to the development of facial structures, jaw and teeth.
Please talk with your dentist if you are experiencing problems with any of these para-functional habits. He or she can recommend treatment to help prevent un-necessary tooth damage.
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