Myofunctional Therapy: It's All in the Tongue

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The tongue's position when swallowing can be an important indication of a person's health, and it can impact the way they look and speak. Luckily, an abnormal tongue position can be corrected with myofunctional therapy, a specialized training process that ensures a future of good health and a pleasing smile despite having a developmental condition.

This form of therapy is a method of exercising the mouth and facial muscles to correct a deviated swallow – often referred to as "tongue thrust." The condition can be found in adults and children with special needs and speech disorders, as well as in people with misaligned teeth. Myofunctional therapy is ultimately customized for the individual based on age, allowing the patient to swallow correctly as time goes on.

What to Look For

In orofacial myofunctional disorders (OMD), according to the American Speech Language Hearing Association, the tongue protrudes amid swallowing, speaking and even when at rest. This can affect the form and function of the mouth beyond the appearance of the thrusting tongue. Although normal in infants, the tongue's position should recede as a child develops. If tongue position doesn't improve, however, it can cause other problems, including:

  • Misaligned teeth
  • Thumb-sucking
  • Teeth-grinding
  • Facial pain
  • Speech problems
  • Mouth breathing
  • Sleep apnea
  • Stomach aches

Often a child may exhibit one or more of these symptoms and will need to seek care to correct the swallowing disorder before the speech deficit or tooth problems can be corrected. In fact, the condition is easily picked up by an orthodontist, who can gauge the progress of treatment as slow or non-existent.

Its Effect on Oral Health

Keep in mind improper tongue placement when swallowing can contribute to malocclusions like an overbite, overjet and underbite. For this reason, people with an abnormal tongue position are also prone to tooth decay and gum disease due to a decrease in the self-cleansing components of normal tongue activity and saliva flow. This is why regular dental care is crucial to recognizing and preventing dental problems – especially for younger patients. Another concern is digestive problems – improper swallowing can influence dietary choices and cause gastrointestinal issues affecting general health. Products such as Colgate® Minions Battery Powered Toothbrush are designed to help parents coach their kids through correct care at every stage of development.

Myofunctional therapy may help in the treatment of sleep apnea for both children and adults, too. In fact, recent studies reported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have shown this therapy helps to decrease sleep apnea by roughly 50 and 60 percent in adults and kids, respectively. In adults, data showed increases in oxygen saturation with decreases in sleeplessness and snoring.

How It's Done

Myofunctional therapy is performed by a professional who has either undergone advanced training in this specialty or carries a background in speech pathology. A dental practitioner may also be trained to recognize and treat patients who exhibit the symptoms listed above.

Again, the practice is based on individual needs but will most always include increasing awareness of the muscles in the mouth and face while gradually training the tongue into its proper position. This includes visual recognition of the face and mouth and corrective exercises that cater to these cosmetic needs. How can you help? Focus on an ideal swallowing pattern that uses the facial muscles and the tongue, which eventually lead to an increase in muscle strength and coordination. The results should be proper tooth positioning, ideal pronunciations and efficient digestion.

The muscles of the face and mouth are designed to work together in a collaborative effort. By recognizing an orofacial myofunctional disorder early, you can help a child or adult overcome the hurdles that prevent them from using their mouths properly.