To understand how to stop cheek biting, it helps to explore what causes the behavior and learn about the negative effects that it can have on your well-being. The action may seem harmless, and if it only happens occasionally, it probably is. When it happens repeatedly, however, it's not just a bad habit or nervous tic.
Repetitive cheek biting is a self-injurious behavior that can endanger both your oral health and your overall health. Armed with that information, you'll be prepared to weigh potential treatment options and decide which ones are best for you.
Cheek Biting: The Inside Story
Catching the tender inside of your cheek with your teeth every now and then isn't particularly unusual or worrisome. Chronically or compulsively nibbling on your cheek's interior, however, is a different matter.
When cheek biting happens frequently, don't dismiss it. It could be a red flag for dental issues. It could also be morsicatio buccarum — that's the name health care professionals use to describe repetitive, often unconscious cheek biting or chewing. Compulsive cheek biting may seem like a minor issue, but it is a recognized health concern that should be treated to prevent further damage to your health.
There is no one cause for repetitive cheek biting. It may be caused by a physical issue or a subconscious reaction to boredom, stress, or anxiety. When you recognize the behavior exists and identify why, you can better decide whether a dentist, mental health professional, or a combination of the two will be best-suited to helping you stop cheek biting.
Cheek Biting and Oral Health
It can be as simple as a slip of the tongue. You're trying to bite down on a piece of food. Then, something shifts. Suddenly, the tender tissue inside of the mouth gets in the way. If it only happens occasionally, there is probably no cause for concern. However, if accidental nips are a regular thing, you might face a dental dilemma:
- Misaligned teeth: Misalignments in teeth can throw off your bite. When the upper and lower teeth don't come together properly, it can increase the odds that the tongue or inside of the cheek will be trapped between them when you bite down.
- A problem tooth: A tooth that is broken or angled oddly can press persistently against the inside of the cheek, causing irritation and leading to bites.
- Temporomandibular joint disorders: How to stop cheek biting is a common challenge for people with a TMJ disorder, especially if they struggle with opening their mouths fully. That’s because restrictions in jaw movement may increase your risk of catching the inside of the mouth between the teeth.
When there is a physiological cause for cheek biting, a dentist is an invaluable ally. They can offer solutions that correct the underlying issue, which may bring the cheek biting to a halt. However, accidental cheek biting can set the stage for morsicatio buccarum. Reducing the likelihood of accidental bites may be enough to break the habit for some people, but other cheek biters may need to work with a mental health professional to stop this behavior.
Cheek Biting and Mental Health
While a physiological cause may prompt someone to begin biting their inner cheek, many cheek biters start or continue to engage in the behavior even when there is no physical reason to do so. Although it may seem contradictory, this self-injurious behavior can be a way to self-soothe.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5, includes a section on obsessive-compulsive and related disorders. The section includes a discussion of chronic cheek biting. Like nail biting, skin picking, and hair pulling, chronic cheek biting is a body-focused repetitive behavior. Such behaviors are often adopted during late childhood and carried into adulthood as a way to deal with anxiety or stress.
Experts believe that cheek biters fall into an emotional feedback loop that spurs the recurring behavior. Basically, they bite or chew on their cheek and discover that this nibbling distracts or calms them. When boredom or anxiety strikes again, they unconsciously use cheek biting to escape the feeling. Over time, the behavior becomes a compulsion.
Cheek biters often gnaw at a particular area and may be completely unaware of their actions. Some even do it in their sleep while others are driven by a compulsive urge to smooth the rough edges of the tissue torn by earlier bites in the same way that a nail biter nibbles at the tip of a ragged fingernail in an attempt to even it out.
The Hidden Danger of Cheek Biting
Many cheek biters don't realize that chronically chewing on the inner tissue of their cheek could endanger both their oral health and their general well-being. Cheek biting causes physical damage to the inner surfaces of the mouth. This raw, broken skin can lead to ulcers, mouth sores, and tissue loss. It also creates a window for contracting an infection that, if left untreated, can spread beyond the mouth and cause problems for the entire body.
There is also a potential connection between mouth lesions and oral cancer. While more research is needed, some research suggests the damage done by repeatedly biting or chewing on the cheek could raise a cheek biter's risk of developing oral cancer.
The damage done by cheek biting is not just physical — there can also be a psychological toll. Some cheek biters feel guilty, ashamed, or overwhelmed by their behavior. Frustrated and embarrassed, they sometimes withdraw from their friends and family to hide their cheek biting. Unfortunately, this isolation can make anxiety issues worse.
Treating Cheek Biting
When a physical issue like a dental misalignment or TMJ disorder is the driving force behind cheek biting, correcting that issue may be enough to fix both problems. Your dentist may recommend braces or restorative treatments to correct your bite and to stop biting your cheek. Oral appliances like mouthguards can also help break the cycle of cheek biting and give the damaged tissues a chance to heal.
If there are no physical reasons for cheek biting or it continues after corrective action is taken, treatment may need to focus on both its behavioral and emotional aspects. There are many possible treatment options:
- Replacing the problem behavior with a healthier alternative like chewing gum
- Identifying and avoiding triggers
- Taking steps to reduce stress and anxiety
- Using other strategies to manage anxiety like deep breathing, meditation, or medication
- Participating in mindfulness training, hypnotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, habit reversal therapy, or talk therapy
Chronic cheek biting can be a frustrating challenge and a danger to your health, but it doesn't have to be a lifelong habit. Effective treatments are available, and some cheek biters may be able to quit on their own. Some may need to seek a dentist's help to deal with a physical issue before they can truly break the cycle, and others may benefit from the support of a mental health professional.
Identifying the reasons behind the cheek biting and choosing treatments that address them is vital for your success. If a mouthguard is recommended, be sure to check out our selection at Pro Teeth Guard. We offer a variety of custom-fitted mouthguards at affordable prices. Each night guard is meticulously crafted from top-quality materials in a professional dental lab and guaranteed to fit comfortably. Contact us today to learn more.