Teenagers are notorious for chewing a lot of gum. The lip
smacking, bubble popping, discarded gum stuck to the sole give teachers and
parents a headache.
Now, Dr Nathan Watemberg of Tel Aviv University-affiliated
Meir Medical Centre has found that gum-chewing teenagers and younger children
as well, are giving themselves headaches too.
His findings, published in Paediatric
Neurology, could help treat countless cases of migraine and tension headaches
in adolescents without the need for additional testing or medication.
"Out of our 30 patients, 26 reported significant
improvement, and 19 had complete headache resolution," said Dr Watemberg.
"Twenty of the improved patients later agreed to go back to chewing gum,
and all of them reported an immediate relapse of symptoms."
Right under our noses
Headaches are common in childhood and become more common and
frequent during adolescence, particularly among girls. Typical triggers are
stress, tiredness, lack of sleep, heat, video games, noise, sunlight, smoking,
missed meals, and menstruation. But until now there has been little medical
research on the relationship between gum chewing and headaches.
At Meir Medical Centre’s Child Neurology Unit and Child
Development Centre and community clinics, Dr Watemberg noticed that many
patients who reported headaches were daily gum chewers. Teenage girl patients were
particularly avid chewers a finding supported by previous dental studies. Dr
Watemberg found that in many cases, when patients stopped chewing gum at his
suggestion, they got substantially better.
Taking a more statistical approach, Dr Watemberg asked 30
patients between six and 19 years old who had chronic migraine or tension
headaches and chewed gum daily to quit chewing gum for one month. They had
chewed gum for at least an hour up to more than six hours per day.
After a month without gum, 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.Two previous studies linked gum chewing to headaches, but
offered different explanations. One study suggested that gum chewing causes
stress to the temporomandibular joint, or TMJ, the place where the jaw meets
the skull. The other study blamed aspartame, the artificial sweetener used in
most popular chewing gums. TMJ dysfunction has been shown to cause headaches,
while the evidence is mixed on aspartame.
Gumming up the works
Dr Watemberg favours the TMJ explanation. Gum is only flavourful
for a short period of time, suggesting it does not contain much aspartame, he
says. If aspartame caused headaches, he reasons, 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 Dr Watemberg. "I believe this is what's happening
when children and teenagers chew gum excessively."
Read more about TMJ - temporomandibular joint disorders including teeth grinding
Dr Watemberg says his findings can be put to use
immediately. By advising teenagers with chronic headaches to simply stop
chewing gum, doctors can provide many of them with quick and effective
treatment, without the need for expensive diagnostic tests or medications.