Research by Israeli pediatric neurologists confirms the clinical observation that chewing gum can make headaches worse. By chewing gum teenagers and younger children appear to be giving themselves headaches, according to a study published in the journal Pediatric Neurology.
Dr. Watemberg, the lead author said that “Out of our 30 patients, 26 reported significant improvement, and 19 had complete headache resolution. Twenty of the improved patients later agreed to go back to chewing gum, and all of them reported an immediate relapse of symptoms.”
Headaches occur in about 6% of children before puberty and become three times as frequent in girls after puberty. Typical triggers are stress, lack of sleep, dehydration, skipping meals, noise, and menstruation. Teenage girl patients are more likely to chew gum – a finding supported by previous dental studies.
Two previous studies linked gum chewing to headaches. One study suggested that gum chewing causes stress to the temporomandibular joint, or TMJ. The other study blamed aspartame, the artificial sweetener used in most popular chewing gums. Dr. Watemberg favors the TMJ explanation because gum does not contain much aspartame. I suspect that it is not the TMJ joint itself that is responsible for headaches, but tension in masticatory muscles – those we chew with. The main ones are temporalis muscles – the ones over the temples, and masseter – those at the corner of the jaw. I can sometimes tell that those muscles are at least in part responsible for headaches as soon as the patient enters the room because they have a square jaw due to enlarged masseter muscles.
Dr. Watemberg says “Every doctor knows that overuse of the TMJ will cause headaches. I believe this is what’s happening when children and teenagers chew gum excessively.” and that his findings can be put to use immediately. By advising teenagers with chronic headaches to simply stop chewing gum, doctors can provide many of them with prompt relief.
For people with hypertrophied (enlarged due to overuse) muscles stopping chewing gum sometimes is not sufficient or they never chew gum, but develop this condition because they clench and grind their teeth in sleep. These patients often respond well to injections of Botox, which shrinks those muscles and often eliminates headaches and relieves TMJ pain and dysfunction. However, Botox is only approved by the FDA for the treatment of chronic migraine and unless the patient also has this condition as well (which is common), the insurance may not reimburse for Botox injections. Biofeedback is another effective treatment for both TMJ disorder and chronic migraines.
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