Cheek Biters Beware

Written By Dr Craig T Ajmo

Official definition Morsicatio buccarum (also known as “Chronic cheek biting,” and “Chronic cheek chewing”) is a cutaneous condition characterized by chronic irritation or injury to the buccal mucosa from repetitive chewing, biting or nibbling produces characteristic changes in the tissue.[1]

That’s a sentence that will make some people say “huh?” while others say “yes, let’s.” The reason for this is because, by and large, cheek biting is somewhat akin to fingernail biting. Some of us do it as a bad habit, and some of us don’t. And, of course, the two sides don’t really understand the other (the side that doesn’t do it says “hey, just stop already,” while the side that does do it knows it’s just not that simple).

But yes, there are cheek biters out there. And when we say “cheek biters,” we mean the entire inside of the mouth — the cheek, the lips, and even the tongue. It’s just the phrase “cheek biters” sounds better.

I see a lot of cheek biting. Some cases are simply accidental, some cases are chronic, yet have easily remedied medical reasons, and some are physiological in nature. Let’s go over a few reasons/causes:

The first cause of cheek biting is basically “careless chewing.” It’s something we all probably do from time to time. It’s when you’re chewing and usually trying to do something else — talking, reaching for something, reading etc. Talking is really the biggest culprit here (be it far from me to admonish people for reading while eating — my newspaper is a staple at lunch). This can be remedied by perhaps paying a little more attention to chewing, slowing down while eating, and similar.

But again, this is something we all probably do. Thus, an occasional cheek/lip bite is usually not a cause for concern.

More problematic is chronic cheek biting, usually due to some sort of misalignment in your teeth, or perhaps due to TMJ (temporomandibular joint disorder). This is quite common in some people — misaligned teeth cause our bites to be “off,” and can cause an occasional nip to the cheek/tongue/lips.

This can happen with your permanent teeth (which become misaligned due to missing teeth/etc), or with improperly aligned false teeth. Misaligned teeth not only cause an occasional accidental nip. In some people, misaligned teeth can create a psychological dependency in terms of biting one’s cheek. This is where chronic cheek biting starts.

When your teeth are misaligned, they do not close together properly. Our brains realize this, and sometimes look to “correct” this misalignment by putting something in between them. And what is available to put in there? You guessed it — the insides of your cheek/lips. So if you find yourself constantly putting your cheek/lips in between your teeth, misalignment could be the reason.

The last reason people bite their cheeks is due to a simple nervous habit, much like biting one’s nails. The root cause may or may not have been misaligned teeth or dentures, but “nervous habit” cheek biting can be prevalent even in a perfect mouth.

So, now that we know the causes, let’s discuss how harmful cheek biting is.

The first, and most obvious, “harmful aspect” is the simple fact that biting one’s cheek often leaves a sore, and mouth sores are never fun. Now again, if this is a twice yearly thing, perhaps it’s not worth worrying about, but if there are constant “bite related” sores in your mouth, it’s something you probably want to address, if nothing else, for your own comfort (and you don’t want them getting infected, etc).

Of course, as mentioned above, cheek biting may mean misalignment, and misaligned teeth can cause all kinds of other problems (TMJ, headaches, moving teeth, etc.) So it’s probably a good idea to get this checked out, and corrected.

There has been some talk of mouth lesions sometimes being a cause of oral cancer. While this is true and would lead one to think cheek biters may be more susceptible to developing oral cancer, it’s doubtful that simply biting repeatedly would do such a thing. The research on this is somewhat spotty, and really, most of the condemning information that is out there is in the form of discussion forum posts and the like. But still, mouth sores are something you do want to eliminate. Ok, we have causes and concerns — now let’s talk about fixing the issue.

Obviously, going by what we’ve laid out, the easiest fixes involve paying more attention to how you chew, and, in many cases, getting a misalignment in your bite corrected. In fact, those two will likely eliminate cheek biting in a great majority of people.

For chronic “nervous habit” cheek biters, the solution may need some kind of substitute or “training” to eliminate the habit. For example, sugarless gum is something that can help. Or, if you are biting your lip, perhaps lip gloss/lip balm, which at least will make you “realize” what you are doing. For others, it might just involve picking up a toothpick and playing around with it in your mouth, or maybe even a blade of grass (used to do that a lot when I was kid—a little worried about pesticides today)

In the end, cheek biting is something almost all of us will experience at one time or another, and with a little effort, is pretty easy to correct.