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What Causes Tongue Spasms?

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Medically Reviewed By Colgate Global Scientific Communications

Your tongue has eight muscles that allow your tongue the freedom of movement required to perform many of its most essential tasks. And like any muscle in your body, your tongue can experience occasional involuntary movements (or spasms.) Some twitching is fleeting and harmless, but recurring tongue spasms (lingual dystonia) can make it difficult to eat and speak. If you're experiencing tongue spasms, we'll break down what may be causing them, when you should seek a professional diagnosis, and what you can expect from treatment so you can keep on smiling.

Normal Tongue Spasms Vs. Lingual Dystonia

According to the Cleveland Clinic, it's normal to have a spasm from time to time, and it can happen in any muscle. Spasms are generally caused by muscle fatigue, dehydration, or an electrolyte imbalance and can go away on their own in seconds, or they can last up to fifteen minutes or more. If your tongue spasms are severe or happen frequently, however, you may have lingual dystonia.

Lingual dystonia is a more severe, long-lasting condition that causes your tongue to move involuntarily and could make it cramp up and make it difficult for you to chew or form words. Extreme dystonia cases can even cause someone to suddenly choke on food and possibly lead to more severe health problems.

What Causes Lingual Dystonia?

The three types of lingual dystonia:

  • Idiopathic
    Sudden spasms with no known cause.
  • Genetic
    Dystonia that's been inherited from at least one parent.
  • and Acquired
    Acquired dystonia is contracted later in life from an illness, injury, or side-effect of medication.

Scientists believe that all types of dystonia originate in an area in the base of the brain called the basal ganglia, which plays a critical role in motor function (movement), but the reason isn't fully understood.

Treating Lingual Dystonia

Your healthcare professional is best positioned to offer treatment tailored to your specific needs according to your condition's severity.

Speech therapy, swallowing therapy, and regular relaxation practices like meditation can help. Other sensory tricks have shown to temporarily improve symptoms as well, like:

  • Touching your lips or your chin
  • Chewing gum
  • Talking
  • Biting a toothpick
  • Or placing a finger underneath your chin

According to the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation, about a third of people who experience dystonia symptoms in their mouth see improvements when they take certain oral medications like clonazepam, trihexyphenidyl, diazepam, tetrabenazine, or baclofen.

A more aggressive form of treatment is botulinum toxin injection (more commonly known as Botox). This compound doesn't just plump up lips and remove wrinkles, it can temporarily paralyze muscles in your face to stop spasms a few days after the injection. According to the National Institutes of Health, treatment needs to be repeated after several months when the effects wear off. Side effects can include swallowing difficulties, slurred speech, and weakness in the injection area.

If you're experiencing tongue spasms that aren't going away or that are concerning you, contact your health professional right away. The treatment approach they will take depends on various factors, but they will likely be able to help reduce your symptoms significantly. Tongue spasms can be frustrating to deal with, but with proper diagnosis and therapy, you can get back to a normal and happy life that keeps you smiling.

Oral Care Center articles are reviewed by an oral health medical professional. This information is for educational purposes only. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist, physician or other qualified healthcare provider. 

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