Tongue Function & Health Issues: Part 1

April 11, 2018 Chelsea Erickson DDS

The function or dysfunction of a tongue can lead to more health issues than many realize. Recent research has linked tongue dysfunction to a myriad of issues such as skeletal and bite changes. These issues can also lead to sleep apnea and TMD among other things. 

The evolution of recent thought is that sleep apnea and TMD are chronic “end stage” diseases whose roots develop early in life. Interventions as early as birth may help prevent or at least curb the severity of these diseases.

Exploring Tongue Function

The tongue is used not only for speaking, swallowing, and tasting, but also for other less obvious functions. The most important may be the tongue’s function of protecting the airway. When touching the palate, the tongue releases oxytocin, which has a calming effect.

The tongue is a large factor in normal growth and development of the face including the nasal and oral spaces. The Moss functional Matrix theory in essence states that the soft tissues will dictate how the hard tissues form. Or, in other words, form follows function.

According to this theory, the tongue will influence development of the palate, nasal cavity, and overall facial form. It then stands to reason that normal function is important for normal facial growth and development.

Development of Swallowing Patterns

The normal function of a tongue begins at the 18th week in utero when the fetus begins swallowing. Infants are born with a congenital suckling/swallowing reflex. At birth, the infantile swallowing pattern (called a “Tooth apart” pattern) is characterized by positioning of the tongue between the gum pads and the jaw slightly apart.

Stabilization of the mandible is from facial muscles and the interposed tongue. The middle portion of the tongue must lift and touch the roof of the mouth to create a seal when nursing and also release oxytocin.

Then, as teeth erupt, children change to a transitional swallow pattern. They will fluctuate between the infantile tooth apart pattern to an adult tooth together pattern. In the tooth together pattern, the teeth are together and the tongue is to the roof of the mouth.

This transition may be altered if the tongue cannot learn the proper position. An altered swallow pattern such as a tongue thrust may occur. Issues that can alter swallower pattern can be a tongue tie, poor or hyperactive muscle tone, a high vaulted palate, delayed non-nutritive sucking habits, or essentially anything that will not allow the tongue to reach the proper spot.

To be continued …

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Chelsea Erickson DDS

Dr. Chelsea Erickson Dr. Chelsea Erickson Dr. Erickson is a North Dakota native who grew up near the Turtle Mountains in Bottineau, North Dakota. She attended the University of North Dakota and graduated with Bachelor of Science in Chemistry in 2006. She then attended Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska where she graduated with her degree as a Doctor of Dental Surgery in 2010. She and her husband moved back to the Grand Forks/East Grand Forks area to be near family and friends. They have three children who keep them very busy. She comes from a medical background and knew from an early age she wanted to become a medical professional. After job shadowing several different medical careers she chose dentistry. Dr. Erickson felt that dentistry was right for her for several reasons. Most importantly, of the many medical fields she observed she felt the dental profession had the privilege of getting to know their patients very well. It also grants practitioners the benefit of autonomy where decisions about treatment are made based on the patients needs and not dictated by a governing hospital or insurance company. Dentistry also provides regular hours allowing her to enjoy more time being a mother and wife. She has been continuing her education by attending the Pankey Institute in Key Biscayne, Florida. She has been working through their five continuums and also has completed training to become an Invisalign provider.

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