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Right in the jaw: ice chewing, tooth picking, and other habits that ruin your teeth
January 24, 2017

Do you bite your nails? Open packages with your teeth? Chew on ice? Believe it or not, these common habits could actually be the foundation of future jaw and teeth problems.

“These are known as parafunctional habits and can cause havoc on your teeth and jaw over time,” said Gary Lowder, a professor at the University of Utah School of Dentistry whose many specialties includes occlusion — or the contact between teeth.

The truth is that the majority of us are guilty of doing most if not all the things on Lowder’s list — opening things with our teeth, chewing on ice, biting our lips, biting our nails, grinding our teeth, chewing on pens or pencils, and yes, even the ubiquitous chewing of gum. And while it’s true that one single incident isn’t enough to cause any real damage, the fact that they are habits is what makes them risky.

What are parafunctional habits?

“My father used toothpicks after every meal, and after 20 years, I could actually see the damaging effects it was having,” said Lowder, nothing that the toothpick eventually wore away areas of his father’s teeth.

But before you start to rethink everything you put in your mouth or how often your teeth clack together, Lowder stresses that it’s the years of continued practice that causes the damage.

“Teeth aren’t impervious. They will wear if subjected to sufficient forces over time,” he said.

Think of it like this: Each tooth sits in a sort of hammock in our mouths, and the root can be bruised as a result of repetitively biting down. “It’s the force you exert on that small area that is so damaging when we use our teeth to open, tear or bite down on something,” he said.

And while, for better or worse, most of us will likely find ourselves absently continuing many of these parafunctional habits, the question becomes, how can we give our teeth the best shot at staying healthy?

Healthy teeth and the things we should avoid

“The key here is prevention,” Lowder said. “We often don’t pay much attention to our teeth until we break one or we get cavities or something happens to them. My goal is to teach people about how to take better care of them.”

Learning about parafunctional habits is a step in the right direction. The other part is learning more about what foods can harm our teeth. If you’ve been to the dentist lately, you were likely reminded about the damaging effects of candy, soda or smoking. What you may not know is that this list includes much more than just those standard warnings.

“Bacteria can convert sugar into acid in about 20 second,” Lowder said. “So it’s important to remember that there are many foods that naturally contain a lot sugars.”

Foods like potato chips, fresh fruit and dried fruit – even milk – are all very high in sugar and starches that easily stick to the crevasses of our teeth. But this doesn’t mean we should never eat them again, Lowder says. Instead, the simple act of swishing your mouth out with water can go a long way in removing some of the unwanted sugars and particles that get trapped throughout the day.

The same can be said for one of everyone’s favorite beverages, soda. The sugary and acidic elements in soda make it a clear troublemaker, especially since it’s so widely and regularly consumed. To combat this bubbly bad guy, Lowder also recommends swishing with water afterwards to avoid damaging teeth.

While coffee and tea aren’t inherently harmful, they do stain teeth, which is why many people have turned to bleaching to get them pearly white again. But, Lowder warns, that too can be damaging. “The enamel surface is opened up to clean off stains, which is hard on teeth,” he said.

Frequent whitening treatments at the dentist’s office can be especially harmful, because they use much more potent products that can leave teeth sensitive. However, the now-staple teeth whitening strips you can find at the store are a much gentler method, although they don’t get teeth as white, Lowder said.

How much work have you had done?

A person’s dental history is another key aspect of how healthy teeth are. Fillings or root canals, for example, make teeth much more susceptible to future damage, Lowder said. It’s not uncommon for people who have had a lot of dental work to fracture a tooth simply by munching on something hard, like peanut brittle or jerky, because their teeth were weakened from previous procedures.

Problems with our teeth can also have a domino effect on our overall health. When teeth are compromised and begin to hurt, it affects what, when and how we eat. Those who have had root canals are likely familiar with the terrible pain an infected tooth can inflict when biting down and trying to chew. If allowed to persist, this could cause other major health problems. Says Lowder, “If you’re not chewing your food enough, this can cause trouble for your stomach, because it takes more to breakdown the food, which can in turn cause ulcers,” he said.

The softer the food, the better

Whether you’ve got sturdy chompers or sensitive teeth, there is one good rule of thumb everyone should remember: the softer the food, the better.

“Generally, eating regular foods is not harmful,” Lowder said. “But, for example, if you consider granola to be part of those normal foods, you should know it can actually be very hard on teeth. Anything that involves heavy chewing or cracking turns normal foods into potential damagers.”

That said, it’s important to remember not to go crazy. You can definitely have “hard” foods or foods that require more chewing — the goal is to become more aware of what they’re doing to your teeth, Lowder said. Instead of eating a package of beef jerky every day, consider something softer that causes less strain on the jaw.

“The real message in all this is moderation,” Lowder said. “The fewer events a tooth experiences, the less potential for wear and damage.”

Concerned about damage to your teeth or just need a checkup? The University of Utah School of Dentistry is accepting new patients. Call 801-587-6453 (58-SMILE) to schedule an appointment. Office hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.