Pop that gum-chewing habit to lessen headaches. Image via Shutterstock.com
Maybe it’s not only teachers who get a headache from their students’ lip smacking, bubble popping and gum cracking.
Dr. Nathan Watemberg of Meir Medical Center in Kfar Saba, Israel, has evidence that gum-chewing teenagers, and younger children as well, may be giving themselves a pain in the head. His small study focused on child and adolescent gum-chewers suffering from migraines and other chronic headaches.
“Out of our 30 patients, 26 reported significant improvement, and 19 had complete headache resolution,” said Watemberg. “Twenty of the improved patients later agreed to go back to chewing gum, and all of them reported an immediate relapse of symptoms.”
He is hoping that his findings, to be published in Pediatric Neurology, could offer a simple way to treat migraine and tension headaches in gum-chewers without the need for additional testing or medication.
The estimated prevalence of headache and migraine over periods between one month and a lifetime in children and adolescents is 58.4 percent, according to a 2010 study done in the United Kingdom. Girls are more prone to migraines, a severe, painful headache that may be accompanied by flashes of light, blind spots, tingling in the arms and legs, nausea, vomiting and increased sensitivity to light and sound.
Typical triggers are stress, fatigue, heat, video games, noise, sunlight, smoking, missed meals and menstruation. Until now, there has been little medical research on the relationship between gum chewing and headaches.
TMJ or aspartame?
One previous study suggested that gum chewing causes stress to the temporo-mandibular joint, or TMJ, the place where the jaw meets the skull. Another study blamed gum-related headaches on aspartame, the artificial sweetener used in most sugar-free chewing gums.
Watemberg favors the TMJ explanation. Gum is only flavorful for a short period of time, suggesting it does not contain much aspartame, he reasons. And if aspartame caused headaches, there would be a lot more headaches from diet drinks and artificially sweetened products. On the other hand, people chew gum well after the taste is gone, putting a significant burden on the TMJ, which is already the most used joint in the body, he says.
“Every doctor knows that overuse of the TMJ will cause headaches,” said Watemberg, formerly the director of the pediatric epilepsy unit at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon. “I believe this is what’s happening when children and teenagers chew gum excessively.”
At Meir Medical Center’s Child Neurology Unit and Child Development Center and community clinics, Watemberg noticed that many patients who reported headaches also chewed gum every day – especially the teenage girls. Watemberg discovered that in many cases, when patients stopped chewing gum at his suggestion, they got substantial relief.
So he asked 30 patients between six and 19 years old – all of whom had chronic migraine or tension headaches and chewed gum daily for at least an hour — to quit chewing gum for one month. After the month was over, 19 of the 30 patients reported that their headaches went away entirely and seven reported a decrease in the frequency and intensity of headaches. To test the results, 26 of them agreed to resume gum chewing for two weeks. All of them reported a return of their symptoms within days.
This finding was significant to Watemberg, a senior lecturer at Tel Aviv University’s Sackler School of Medicine who has published scores of articles in the medical literature and is a member of the steering committee of Israel’s Child Neurology and Child Development Association.
He urged his peers in pediatric neurology to immediately advise teenage patients with chronic headaches to simply stop chewing gum, before steering them toward expensive diagnostic tests or medications.