Sleep is supposed to be a time for the body and mind to refresh. Unfortunately for many people, sleep is a time when they suffer painful oral injuries. One particularly notable nocturnal injury is tongue biting. If you wake up in the morning with a sore or bloody tongue or you notice there is scar tissue on the sides of the appendage, then you may be accidentally biting or chewing on your tongue while you sleep. Here's more information about this phenomenon and what you can do to treat it.
Causes of Nocturnal Tongue Biting
Tongue biting in your sleep is a symptom of several diseases, both common and rare. Possibly the most serious of these conditions is nocturnal seizures, which may be the result of a seizure disorder such as epilepsy or the consequence of uncontrolled obstructive sleep apnea.
People who have nocturnal seizures typically don't realize they're having one during the event and may lose consciousness afterwards. However, they typically present symptoms upon awakening such as:
- Headaches or migraines
- Muscle soreness or bone or joint injury from body contortions or thrashing during sleep
- Loss of bladder control
- Daytime sleepiness
- Bloody or sore tongue, lips, cheeks and/or damaged teeth from biting or grinding
According to some statistics, up to 45 percent of people with epilepsy who participated in various sleep studies had nocturnal seizures.
Another common cause of nocturnal tongue biting is as a result of an emotional disorder or bruxism. A person subjected to a lot of stress or suffering from anxiety may begin chewing on his or her tongue to alleviate the tension. This typically begins as a daytime problem; the person starts–consciously or unconsciously—chewing on the sides of their tongue. This nervous habit then extends to nighttime chewing and may even encompass the soft tissues of the cheeks and lips.
If the person is suffering from bruxism, the tongue is often collateral damage to the primary problem of excessive jaw clenching or teeth grinding characterized by the disorder. The person will experience other symptoms such as sore jaw muscles, sensitive teeth, worn-down teeth, or damage to teeth, crowns, and fillings.
Left unchecked, the tongue chewing can lead to the development of abrasions and ulcers. Eventually, these abrasions thicken and turn into hyperkeratosis, a condition that can make it difficult for the person to chew food or speak.
A less common cause of tongue biting during sleep is a condition called facio-mandibular myoclonus. This disease is characterized by involuntary and spontaneous oromasticatory movements that occur primarily during NREM sleep. The jerky movements of the jaw and mouth may cause the tongue to inadvertently get caught between the teeth, resulting in injury.
Protecting the Tongue During Sleep
Seizure disorders are typically diagnosed by a medical professional such as a neurologist. A dentist can generally tell if a person is suffering from tongue chewing or bruxism during an oral exam. You may need to undergo a sleep study to determine if you have facio-mandibular myoclonus.
Regardless of the underlying cause, you can protect your tongue from further damage by using mouth guards. These are oral appliances generally made from plastic that fit over the teeth. This helps cut down on the amount of damage the teeth do to the tongue should the appendage have the misfortune of getting caught between them.
There are three different types of mouth guards:
- Boil and bite: These mouth guards are made from a special type of plastic that allows you to custom-fit the devices by softening them in hot water and shaping them around the teeth. You can find them in any retail store.
- Standard mouth guards: These are the devices used for sports such as hockey. They made from tough plastic, tend to be bulky, and cannot be adjusted at all. You can purchase these devices from sporting goods stores.
- Custom-fitted guards: These mouth guards are made in a laboratory to fit the specific dimensions of your mouth. The dentist will take an impression of your teeth, create a mould, and then send the mould to the laboratory. Though they tend to more expensive than the kind you can get at a retail store, they offer the most comfort and protection.
Before buying a mouth guard, it's best to consult with a dentist about the right option for you, especially if your tongue injuries are caused by a seizure disorder. The last thing you want to have happen is for the mouth guard to become a choking hazard during a seizure. For more information about mouth guards or the conditions that may cause tongue biting, talk to your family dentist.