Bad Habits and Dental Health


A habit (or wont) is a routine of behavior that is repeated regularly and tends to occur unconsciously.
Are you destroying your teeth with common bad habits? Many of our patients are surprised to learn how certain behaviors affect their oral health. Your teeth are meant to last a lifetime. They are strong enough to endure the daily functions of masticating food but certain habitual behaviors can impede your teeth’s ability to function properly.
All of these habits specifically involve the mouth and disrupt the balance of muscular forces that control the growth and position of your teeth.

Muscles not only open and close your mouth, but they also control your lips, tongue, and cheeks. When all the muscles are pulling their equal weight, a balance of forces occur between the lips and cheeks on the outside, the tongue on the inside, and the teeth against each other. Anything that disrupts this balance, can actually move the teeth and result in an unstable bite. This can eventually cause your teeth to become cracked, loose, or even fall out! An unstable bite can also lead to symptoms such as jaw pain or headaches.

Additionally, common habits such as biting your fingernails or eating sugary food actually increase the presence of harmful bacteria in your mouth.

Bite Fingernails

[cml_media_alt id='2693']habits1[/cml_media_alt]Think about all the things your fingers touch throughout the day. Chances are your hands are covered in germs and bacteria from shaking hands with others, handling food, covering your mouth when you sneeze, and touching door knobs. Even if you wash your hands regularly, germs and bacteria become trapped beneath your fingernails. If you
bite or you’re your fingernails, you are transferring bacteria from your hands to your mouth.

Thumb and finger habits make up the majority of oral habits. However two thirds of children who engage in thumb and finger habits outgrow them by age five. The dentofacial changes will vary with the intensity, duration and frequency of the habit and the position of the digit in the mouth. The dentofacial changes include:

  • Anterior open bite
  • Facial movement of the maxillary incisors
  • Lingual movement of the mandibular incisors
  • Maxillary constriction

The earlier the habit is discontinued the greater the likelihood of dento-facial changes self-correcting. However, the child should be allowed to stop the habit spontaneously. Most habits stop in school due to peer pressure so definitive treatment is not initiated until ages 4-6 years.

The technique of treatment involves placing a cue on the patient’s finger as a reminder not to place their finger in the mouth, especially while sleeping. The cues may be a bandage, a sock or mitten, a bitter substance or a commercially bought appliance. It is important to emphasize to the child that the treatment mechanism is not a punishment but just a reminder.

The reminder therapy can be used in conjunction with a reward system. A contract is drawn up with the child and parent. The contract states that the child will discontinue the habit in a specified amount of time and if successful will receive a reward (the type agreed upon by the parent and child). Placing stickers or marks on a calendar monitors the child’s progress.


[cml_media_alt id='2694']habits3[/cml_media_alt]The consequences of extensive use of a pacifier are similar to that of finger and thumb sucking but not as pronounced. The
pacifier habit tends to end earlier than digital habits because they are easier to lose intentionally or non-intentionally. 90%
are ended before 5 years of age and 100% by age 8. The earlier the pacifier is removed the greater the chance of the dento-facial changes self-correcting.

Continuous sucking on a pacifier can cause the auditory tubes to become abnormally open, which allows secretions from the throat to seep into the middle ear," explains AGD spokesperson Maria Smith, DDS. "Transmission of bacteria in secretions would lead to middle ear infections.

The bottom line is that if your child is continuously battling middle ear infections, you may have an alternative to surgery or antibiotics to stop this problem, says Dr. Smith, which would be to remove the pacifier.

Lip Habits

[cml_media_alt id='2695']habits4[/cml_media_alt]Lip licking is the most common lip habit. The most common clinical effects are inflamed chap lips exhibiting an erythematous wide border encircling the
lips with normal skin area just around the vermilion border. Severe lip licking, with the lower lip tucked behind the maxillary incisors, places excessive lingually directed forces on the mandibular teeth and facial forces on the maxillary teeth, resulting in retro-inclination of the mandibular incisors, proclination of the maxillary incisors and increased over jet. There is little that can be done to stop the habit, however, the irritated areas can be controlled with the application of steroids, antibacterial and anti fungal ointments.


[cml_media_alt id='2696']habits5[/cml_media_alt]Bruxism is the nonfunctional grinding or gnashing of teeth. It occurs most often during sleep, however some children grind their teeth when awake. It results in wear of teeth and can cause masticatory muscle soreness and TMJ pain. Local factors include occlusal interferences or high restorations. Systemic factors include stress, personality disorders, nutritional deficiencies, allergies, endocrine disorders,
musculoskeletal disorders and mental retardation. Most children outgrow the habit and treatment is unnecessary.
Over time, bruxism leads to tooth wear and microscopic cracks in tooth enamel. In severe
cases, patients may actually fracture their teeth.

For those that do not, treatment consists of:

• Equilibration of the occlusal interferences
• Referral to medical personnel to rule out systemic or psychological problems
• Fabrication of a night grinding appliance

Damaging Habits Involving Your Posture

[cml_media_alt id='2697']habits6[/cml_media_alt]• Carrying your head too far forward in front of your shoulders. A "forward head posture" is when the head is carried too far forward in front of the shoulders. Your head weights approximately 15 lbs. – the weight of an average bowling ball! With each inch forward, the strain of supporting the head triples. Not only does this strain the neck, back, and shoulders, but it also affects the jaw muscles and can even change your bite.
• Sleeping on your stomach so that your head and neck are in a strained position.
• Carrying heavy shoulder bags, briefcases or purses.
• Cradling the telephone with your shoulder.
• Resting your chin in your hand.
• Watching TV (or anything else) with your head at a sharp angle, such as when lying in bed with your chin on your breastbone.
• Working at a surface that is too high.
Most people do not equate posture with dental health. Poor posture, however, can throw your head and spine off balance in relation to gravity.
Bad posture places unnecessary wear and tear on your muscles and joints. It has a "chain reaction" effect up and down your body. Your head position will especially affect your chewing muscles. Muscles are stronger than teeth, and when they are strained they can cause the teeth to move, crack or chip. These poor postural habits can also eventually cause pain in the muscles of the jaw, head, neck and shoulders.

Chewing and biting on ice, pens or pencils

[cml_media_alt id='2698']habits7[/cml_media_alt]Although teeth are generally very strong, repetitious biting on hard objects can result in cracks and breaking of teeth. Dental crowns, and possibly a root
canal can be in your future thanks to this habit.

Smoking or tobacco use

Periodontal disease and lost teeth are two good reasons to give up this habit.

Sugary beverages and snacks

Exposing teeth to excess sugar throughout the day encourage plaque to build up on teeth and gums. This habit can lead to tooth decay and gum disease.

Using teeth as tools

[cml_media_alt id='2699']habits2[/cml_media_alt]Using teeth as a substitute for scissors, pliers or tools of any sort can lead to broken teeth or at the very least chipped enamel. Some people rely on their teeth for odd jobs. You might find yourself opening a tightly
screwed bottle, tearing open a bag of chips, straightening a bent fork, or ripping a price tag off a new article of clothing. These actions can be quite hard on your teeth and can even cause a weakened tooth to fracture or chip.

Changing Habits

  1. The good news about habits is that they CAN be changed. This is up to you. Here are the "3 R’s" for breaking habits.
    Realize: The first step in changing any habit is to recognize you are already aware. Ask family members or friends to add to the list. Think about your habits in relation to how often you do them and under what circumstances. You may even chart this information for a week or two.
  2. Replace: When you notice you are engaging in a behavior which you want to stop, replace that behavior with something else. For instance, if you realize
    that you are clenching your teeth, take a deep breath and blow out of your mouth…allowing your jaw to relax. Sometimes it helps to use reminders that call
    your attention to the habit. Example: every time you hear the phone ring, or see the color blue, pay attention to whether or not you are clenching your
  3. Reinforce: Each time you stop a bad habit, congratulate yourself! Say to yourself, "I did it - great!" You may even identify other ways to reward yourself for the new behavior.

When Help is needed?

Not all habits can be changed through your own effort. Sometimes professional help is needed. If you have old habits that involve your mouth, such as clenching your teeth, the habits may actually have changed your bite. In this case, it would be very hard to change the habit without having the bite corrected by a dentist.
Habits that involve your posture, such as carrying your head too far forward, may eventually cause certain muscles to shorten. In this case, help from a physical therapist may be needed to relax and stretch those muscles. Therapeutic work with a chiropractor or physical therapist in conjunction with your dentist may also help to correct spinal imbalances.
If you experience any of the habits described, discuss them with TORRES DENTAL GROUP at your next appointment. We will explain how they might damage your dental health and will evaluate whether or not any damage has already occurred.

Take the time to understand your health. Your health is your most valuable possession. It's worth the investment!
Dr. María Claudia Torres

78-11 35th Avenue, Suite 1-E
Jackson Heights, NY 11372
(718) 899-3840

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