Is Cheek Chewing Bad for Your Health?
Repetitive behaviors such as cheek chewing or nail-biting can be a sign of underlying mental health struggles. Cheek chewing, known scientifically as morsicatio buccarum is an example of a body-focused repetitive behavior (BFRB). Other examples of BFRBs include hair pulling (trichotillomania) and skin picking (excoriation). These behaviors correspond with anxiety-related problems as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder.
In this article, we will discuss the reasons why someone might exhibit behaviors such as cheek chewing. While it may seem like a harmless habit, over time this practice can have impacts on the health of the tissue inside the mouth, impacting oral health in general. We will discuss what treatments are available to stop cheek chewing. We will also explore how a dentist might treat a patient that has been a habitual cheek chewer, as well as oral health issues to watch out for.
Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors & Cheek Chewing
Body-focused repetitive behaviors are compulsively repeated despite efforts to stop them. These behaviors become disorders when they interfere with a person’s quality of life, causing them injury or emotional distress. BFRBs are typically adopted by a person in late childhood. If not addressed these behaviors often continue into adulthood.
Cheek biting falls into one of several categories. The first is periodic or accidental cheek biting. This is not a repetitive behavior and is usually not cause for concern. It can be very uncomfortable to unexpectedly bite one’s cheek, and depending on the severity of the bite, a canker sore could result. These usually heal on their own.
Sometimes a person may accidentally bite down on their cheek on a regular basis, or more often than normal. This could be a sign that the jaw is out of alignment. If you’re experiencing regular accidental cheek biting, this is an important topic to discuss with your dentist. They may refer you to an orthodontist to correct the misalignment. Another cause of accidental cheek biting could be a person’s wisdom teeth coming in. The emergence of wisdom teeth can also cause some irritation to the insides of the cheeks. If your wisdom teeth are still intact, this could be a cause to look for if you are regularly biting your cheeks by accident.
Just as some people grind their teeth in their sleep without being conscious of it, some people bite their cheeks in their sleep. This could be caused by anxiety or misalignment or both. Dentists can address this issue by providing their patients with a soft guard device that can protect their cheeks from contact with the teeth. Signs that this is occurring will show up as soreness and possibly increased canker sores on the insides of the cheeks.
Habitual Cheek Biting and Cheek Chewing
Habitual cheek biting is more complex. It can range from being a semiconscious habit to obsessive behavior. Some people that struggle with habitual cheek biting are able to replace this behavior with something else that is less damaging. Others may struggle to stop despite their best attempts to do so. There does not seem to be one easily definable cause for chronic cheek biting and other BRFB. Some of the suggested causes include subconscious reactions to stress, subconscious reaction to boredom or inactivity, or semiconscious coping method for emotional overload.
Even though these behaviors can cause injury, a person may still engage in them because they may feel almost normal due to the compulsive nature of this habit. Some people struggle with biting the same area of the inner cheek. This can result in a patch of skin that feels raw and jagged. This then triggers the compulsion to smooth this damaged area, resulting in more cheek chewing and worsening the injury.
Why You Need to Keep Your Cheek Biting in Check
The reason why cheek chewing is so dangerous is that it can have negative consequences for one’s oral health. Repeated chewing on the inside of the cheek can cause injury to the mouth tissue. This can lead to mouth sores and ulcers. It can also make halitosis or bad breath more pronounced. If other harmful bacteria such as gingivitis is present it can create an environment for this harmful bacteria to flourish. There is no evidence that chronic irritation caused by cheek chewing contributes to serious oral diseases such as oral cancer. However, if cancer is already present in the mouth from another cause, chronic irritation and sores in the mouth can promote cancer’s progress.
Cheek chewing can have negative impacts on emotional and psychological health as well. If a person is having a hard time stopping these behaviors they may start to experience feelings of guilt and shame. Furthermore, these feelings of embarrassment can cause them to take great measures to avoid socializing with other people. This can cause problems in both their social and professional lives. This embarrassment can also prevent them from seeking treatment from a dentist, even if they are experiencing severe discomfort.
How to Stop Chewing on Your Cheeks
If your cheek chewing is not happening accidentally, and you wish to stop this behavior, the first step is to determine whether this behavior is habitual or compulsive. The severity of the behavior will help you to determine the best options for how to address this issue. Habitual cheek chewing can often be corrected with light guidance from a trusted accountability partner, self-discipline, and patience. Some techniques that have helped habitual cheek chewers to stop this behavior include: Replacing cheek chewing sugarless gum. This can help satisfy the urge to chew without injuring your cheek.
Consciously paying attention to and identifying what triggers this behavior can help you shift your cheek biting habit to something less harmful. For some people practicing deep breathing in moments when you feel triggered and tempted to chew on your cheeks can be helpful. If you notice your triggers are connected to stresses from life events, either past or present, it may be helpful to find a therapist to talk to. They can help you to uncover some of the root causes that contribute to feelings of anxiety.
Addressing the Issue Head On
Addressing compulsive body-focused repetitive behaviors such as cheek chewing is a more complex problem to address. According to the TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors, treatment for chronic cheek biting should be focused on the underlying emotional and behavioral aspects. Some steps that TLC recommends include: lowering stress levels and providing health anxiety solutions. These could include therapy, medication, relaxation practices such as yoga or meditation, or a combination of all of these things.
Mindfulness, Awareness, and Understanding
Mindfulness practices such as those that are learned in meditation can help a person struggling with BFRBs to recognize what triggers one’s compulsive cheek chewing. From this awareness, they are able to remove triggers that have been shown to instigate compulsive chewing behavior wherever possible. Hypnosis has been shown to be very helpful for stopping habits that originate on a subconscious level. In addition to talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, happy reversal therapy, and acceptance and commitment therapy are all appropriate treatments.
Once you understand the reason for cheek chewing, you can determine the next best steps to addressing this behavior or any discomforts that you’re experiencing as a result. You may be able to succeed with a self-directed plan. However, if your cheek chewing is occurring as a result of jaw misalignment, wisdom teeth, or overcrowding of the teeth, you will want to see a dentist, and possibly an orthodontist as well. They will be able to determine the best way to prevent accidental injury to your cheek by evaluating the alignment of your jaw and subsequent bite. If you are chewing your cheeks while sleeping, and not consciously aware that this is occurring, your dentist will be able to fashion a mouth guard to protect your cheeks, as well as your oral health.
Talk to Your Doctor or Dentist About Your Compulsive Cheek Chewing
We understand that our patients may feel shy or embarrassed about disclosing their struggles with cheek chewing. This is especially true when cheek chewing is habitual or compulsive in nature. If you are struggling with compulsive cheek chewing, we want to assure you that there is nothing to be ashamed of. We care about your quality of life and oral health. When you feel comfortable in your entire body, your day-to-day experience is much better than when you are distracted by sores in your mouth or any other discomfort. We are here to provide solutions to our patients so that they feel empowered and successful in maintaining good oral health. We are happy to help our patients overcome this or any other struggle related to their oral health.
The longer you put off your initial visit, the more foreboding the experience will seem. Once you’ve finished your first appointment and seen how welcoming, non-judgemental, and caring our office is you will feel relief knowing that you have a great support team. We are used to accommodating patients with dentist-related anxieties, so if this is a struggle for you please communicate this with our team prior to your first visit. We know we can help you decide on a treatment program that feels right for you and creates lasting change.
Convenient Dentist Offices in Southern California
Doctor Sam Shahovesi and the team at City Dental Centers are here to provide our patients with the best dental services and dental surgeries for children and adults of all ages. From toddlers to seniors, City Dental Centers offers six convenient dentist offices in Southern California. We even have a dedicated children’s dentist office, City Dental Kids & Braces, to cater to the special physical and emotional needs of children.
Whether you need checkups, x-rays, braces, bonding, teeth whitening, sealants, oral cancer screenings, root canals, crowns, bridges, implants, or tooth extraction, City Dental Centers is here to make the process as easy and comfortable as possible.
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