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Is Chewing Gum a TMJ Trigger?

TMJ, or temporomandibular joint disorder, is a painful jaw condition that affects over 10 million Americans, according to the National Institute of Craniofacial Research at the National Institute of Health. For many of the afflicted, their condition is caused by a misalignment of the jaw, causing pain and tension in the muscle that surrounds the temporomandibular joint.  Patients with the disorder may find that some behavioral habits and factors make their affliction worse. These habits include grinding the teeth and clenching the jaw, and stress. One particular habit that has become a source of concern for dentists in relation to TMJ is chewing gum. Some dentists believe that this seemingly innocuous habit is really very detrimental to patients at risk for developing TMJ.

The temporomandibular joints are located on both sides of the face. These joints and the muscles that surround them serve to connect the mandible, or lower jaw, to the skull. The joints and the muscles involved in the connection allow the lower jaw to open and close for actions like chewing, yawning and talking. They also allow the jaw to slide forward, backward and side to side.

Dentists concerned over chewing gums connection to TMJ believe that the constant chewing action wears down the temporomandibular joints. They believe that when the TMJ joints become worn, chewing and other natural actions of the jaw become painful. Other effects of the disorder include popping and cracking when opening and closing the mouth. A portion of patients will experience their lower jaw locking, which makes it painful and difficult to open their mouth. Patients at TMJ frequently experience migraine and tension headaches, neck pain, shoulder pain and even symptoms that mimic those of ear infections and toothaches.

“TMJ can cause a wide range of symptoms in the patient that initially do not seem related to the jaw,” says Dr. Dr. Stefania Caracioni, D.D.S, L.V.I.F.. Caracioni is a dentist who treats patients with TMJ at her Topeka, Kansas, clinic. “Patients with ringing in their ears and that have dizziness often end up seeking treatment for their symptoms with their medical doctor first, because they don’t connect these symptoms with a jaw condition,” she explains. As a result, some patients are misdiagnosed, which means they do not get the TMJ treatment that they really need. “For many patients, this means living with pain, which really isn’t living at all.”

Caracioni is a dentist who believes that chewing gum does not cause the condition, but may aggravate it for some TMJ patients. “The TMJ joints and muscles that surround them are already sore from holding the misaligned jaw in place, so repetitive motions like chewing gum can aggravate them further,” says Caracioni.

She notes there have not been studies performed to link TMJ and chewing gum, and that gum in moderation is just fine. “Chewing sugarless gum in moderation is fine for most individuals, but if it hurts to chew gum, don’t do it,” she says. Gum can help stimulate the production of saliva, which is important to keep the tissues of the mouth moist, fight against bacteria, and reduce the risk of cavities by helping to remineralize the teeth. Gum helps to freshen the breath, and its sticky quality helps to remove small particles of food that have been left on the teeth after eating.

Some patients also feel that their TMJ symptoms are alleviated when they chew gum. “For some patients, this may be true – gum chewing may help relax or massage those already tight muscles,” says Caracioni.

Caracioni encourages patients with TMJ or TMJ symptoms to discuss their dentist at their next checkup and their options for treatment condition with their dentist and seek treatment for their symptoms.