How to Identify, Fight, and Conquer Oral Parafunctional Habits

How to Identify, Fight, and Conquer Oral Parafunctional Habits

As infants, we possess a natural inclination to suck our thumbs. It provides security and an ability to self-soothe despite limited mobility. Expressing ourselves through our mouths is one of the first things we learn how to do. And as adults, many of us revert to habitual oral behaviors as a way to deal with stress. In professional dentistry, these behaviors are known as oral parafunctional habits.

Unfortunately, parafunctional habits can lead to a variety of mouth disorders, making them the most destructive cause of wear on teeth. Most children stop sucking their thumbs within their first two years, but this habit sometimes persists in others even into adulthood. For children who continue sucking their thumbs after their permanent teeth have grown in, they often suffer misaligned teeth and other problems.

Parafunctional habits aren't just limited to thumb-sucking. People have been known to breathe excessively through their mouths or involuntarily thrust their tongues against their teeth. Many people grind their jaws in a parafunctional habit known as bruxism. Bruxism most frequently occurs during sleep, and it is often considered a sleep disorder. Nocturnal bruxism is often caused by a simple misaligned bite or disturbed sleep patterns, but quite often, as in the waking hours, the grinding of teeth is a result of stress and worry.

Jaw clenching is often conflated with bruxism, as the two disorders are commonly seen together. Clenching differs from bruxism in that it involves non-moving contact of the upper and lower teeth with a great deal of damaging pressure. Clenching may be even more detrimental to the health of your teeth than grinding, and is also connected to tension headaches and strain to the muscles of the neck and shoulders.

Can you remember a time you've clenched your jaw due to tension or anxiety? Have you bitten the inside of your cheek in anticipation of something, or chewed on your lip in suspense or concentration? It's a common response, and completely natural. However, done to excess, it can cause a lot of damage. We'll talk about the serious consequences of bruxism and clenching in our next blog; however, even seemingly harmless parafunctional habits can lead to bad results. People who habitually force their tongue against their teeth can develop scallops on the lateral margins of the tongue; this is a condition known as  crenated tongue (or, more informally,  "pie crust tongue").

The reasons for oral parafunctional habits differ from person to person, but it could be said that each of them unconsciously seeks that sense of comfort and relaxation they felt when, as young children, they sucked their thumbs until they fell asleep. Humans are soothed by oral sensation, and whether it be through eating, smoking, drinking, nail-biting, bruxism, or other parafunctional habits, we often deal with stressors via our mouths. That said, when these behaviors become destructive to our better health and happiness, it is time to get ahold of the habit.

If you find yourself  struggling with a parafunctional habit, the best way to break through is with awareness and willpower. Many people find that seeing a therapist or taking up a practice such as meditation or other mindfulness exercises helps them deal with the triggers of stress and anxiety, and they can be very effective methods to empower oneself to do a great many things beyond protecting your teeth!

You are the one who ultimately makes or breaks your habits -- but you have a community of oral health professionals who are armed with the education and experience to help. If you have concerns about oral parafunctional habits in yourself or someone close to you, please contact us.

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