child with tongue thrust sucking thumb

How Tongue Thrust Occurs

Tongue thrusting is the habit of pushing the tongue forward between the upper and lower front teeth when swallowing. The proper position for the tip of the tongue is to push against the gum above the back of the upper front teeth, rather than between the upper and lower teeth.

Here's why tongue thrust can occur, who can be affected, what complications tongue thrusting can cause and how certain treatment regimens can be used to lessen or eliminate the condition.

'Open Bite'

A variety of causes are responsible for the compulsion to continually push one's tongue forward; discerning which it is in any one case depends on the person. If a young child sucks his or her thumb at an early age – and does not stop the habit by the age of four, warns the American Dental Association (ADA) – the upper and lower teeth can become altered in a way that creates a dental condition called "open bite."

Appliances for Toddlers

Open bite can sometimes require an oral appliance placed in the upper arch and palate to discourage thumb-sucking, so that normal lip movement can realign the teeth and close the space. If this appliance is used, however, it is important that the teeth are cleaned in and around the item with a daily fluoride rinse used to prevent cavities, such as Colgate® Phos-Flur® Rinse.

How It Affects Adults

Adults are just as susceptible to this condition as kids, especially if the person develops a narrow facial structure with a large tongue as they get older. With proper speech and language therapy, you can learn how to control tongue thrust even if it stems from a younger habit, and avoid any oral conditions that would open the bite. Babies may be learning to pronounce words correctly, but older versions of the condition can cause difficulty eating, which needs to be taken care of quickly.

What Treatment Is Available?

Treatment for tongue thrust may consist in a combination of therapy and exercise, and/or appliances to guide the tongue into a better position. The diagnosis of tongue thrusting can be done by a pediatrician or associated physician, a general dentist, pediatric dentist, orthodontist or speech language pathologist, according to the American Speech Language Hearing Association.

Tongue thrusting is a very treatable condition, but it involves the insight of dentists, physicians and speech specialists to ensure the condition is treated well. When identified early, this guidance will prove beneficial to the patient and lead to a lifetime of good oral health.

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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