Tongue thrust, a dysfunctional swallow pattern resulting from a low resting tongue, can wreak havoc in the oral cavity and can lead to an open bite, flaring or tipping of the teeth, dental crowding and relapsed orthodontics. Ideally, the tongue should rest entirely, from front to back, against the palate, serving as a natural expander for the palate during the years of craniofacial growth. The lips, if toned and closed, work as natural braces to help keep teeth in alignment. With an untreated tongue thrust swallow pattern, the tongue habitually rests against the back of the teeth instead of against the palate, exerting light, constant pressure against the teeth. With every swallow, the tongue pushes forward against the teeth, and these combined forces push the jaw and teeth forward and out of alignment.
What Causes Tongue Thrust?
Tongue thrust can develop for a variety of reasons, but three of the most common underlying causes for a low resting tongue and tongue thrust are mouth breathing, tongue tie and toxic oral habits.
- Mouth breathing is almost always coexistent with tongue thrust and can have several underlying causes such as narrow nasal airways, tongue tie, nasal allergies and obstruction of the nasal airways including deviated septum, swollen nasal turbinates or enlarged tonsils/adenoids.
- Tongue tie physically tethers the tongue to the floor of the mouth, inhibiting it from suctioning fully against the palate as is necessary for proper swallowing function to occur.
- Toxic oral habits such as nail biting, thumb/object sucking or prolonged pacifier use force the tongue to the floor of the mouth and into a habitual pattern of dysfunction with every swallow.
Myofunctional Therapy and Tongue Thrust
The first step towards eliminating tongue thrust is to identify what led to it in the first place. A comprehensive myofunctional exam can help identify the underlying causes of a tongue thrust, and your myofunctional therapist can help you navigate to the appropriate professional if a nasal obstruction or tongue tie is identified. It's important to remember that even after a tongue tie is released or an obstruction is removed, the tongue, through muscle memory, will continue to operate in a dysfunctional manner until it is retrained to function properly. Myofunctional therapy exercises will help you to make new neuromuscular connections, build muscle strength and coordination and teach the muscles of the tongue, lips, cheeks and throat to function properly again so that proper swallowing function can occur. Myofunctional therapy is an important part of a team approach to help you prevent orthodontic relapse and ensure your results will last for a lifetime!