Tongue Thrust in Children and Adults: Symptoms and Treatment

Apr 27, 2024 | 6 min read

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Tongue thrust is a condition where the tongue protrudes during swallowing, speaking, or at rest, possibly causing speech issues and dental problems. It can stem from infant reflexes and persist into adulthood due to factors like prolonged pacifier use or structural abnormalities. 

Managing tongue thrust effectively involves exercises, therapy, and sometimes orthodontic devices, emphasizing the need for early detection and treatment.

tongue thrust

What is Tongue Thrust?

Tongue thrust, often referred to in the realm of oral health, is a condition that catches the attention of both parents and adults alike. But what is tongue thrust? Simply put, it's when the tongue presses too far forward in the mouth, notably during swallowing, speaking, or even when at rest. This action can push against or slip between the teeth, disrupting the natural harmony of the mouth's landscape.

Interestingly, the tongue thrust reflex is a natural occurrence in infants. It's a built-in mechanism that aids babies in breastfeeding, acting as a safeguard against choking. During early infancy, this reflex plays a pivotal role in feeding. However, as a child grows, this reflex should diminish, paving the way for mature swallowing patterns to develop.

Causes and Symptoms of Tongue Thrust

In Babies

When observing baby tongue thrust, it's crucial to recognize that it's a normal part of infant development. This reflex is not only natural but necessary for feeding efficiently. Despite its importance in infancy, if the tongue thrust persists beyond the baby stage, it may hint at underlying issues needing attention. 

According to Healthline, in children, tongue thrust is apparent when there’s too much forward movement of the tongue during swallowing and speaking, indicating it's time to evaluate the situation further. The causes of tongue thrust in infants and young children can range widely, including:

  • Extended use of bottles or pacifiers beyond the age of 3 to 4 years, potentially reinforcing the tongue's forward positioning.
  • Allergies that lead to nasal congestion, prompting the child to adopt mouth breathing, inadvertently affecting tongue position.
  • Habits such as prolonged thumb sucking, which may encourage the tongue to maintain its thrusting position.

It's beneficial to know the symptoms that may accompany this condition in infants and young children. Observing the following signs can help parents and healthcare professionals recognize a persistent tongue thrust:

  • Difficulty with Proper Swallowing - Noticeable struggles during feeding, where the tongue pushes against or protrudes past the lips.
  • Delayed Speech Development - Issues with articulating certain sounds which can be attributed to the abnormal positioning of the tongue.
  • Open Mouth Posture - Frequent open-mouth breathing even when the child is not exerting themselves or experiencing nasal congestion.
  • Altered Facial Development - Prolonged tongue thrusting can impact the growth pattern of the face and teeth, often leading to dental issues such as an open bite.
  • Frequent Drooling - Excess saliva escaping the mouth, especially beyond the teething phase, can indicate improper tongue placement.

If you're noticing persistent tongue thrusting in your child, consider using Child Symptom Checker as a preliminary step to understanding whether these symptoms might need professional attention. Remember, while this tool offers insights, consulting with a healthcare professional is essential for a comprehensive evaluation and guidance.

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In Adults

In adults, the persistence or development of tongue thrust might come as a surprise to many. Signs of tongue thrust in adults can manifest subtly, often overlooked until oral health issues arise. Several factors can contribute to its presence in adults, including:

  • Untreated tongue thrust from childhood, which seamlessly transitions into adult life.
  • Stress and certain habits, like pen chewing or nail-biting, which can encourage the tongue to press forward.
  • Structural issues, such as misalignment of teeth or jaw abnormalities, foster an environment where tongue thrust finds its place.

It's important to recognize the signs of tongue thrust in adults as they can significantly impact oral health and overall well-being. Here are signs of tongue thrust in adults:

  • Speech Difficulties - Challenges with pronunciation, particularly with "s" and "z" sounds, which may sound slurred or distorted.
  • Improper Bite - Difficulty in closing the mouth fully without straining, which might be accompanied by an open bite where the teeth do not align properly.
  • Gum Problems - Repeated pressure against the teeth can lead to receding gums, contributing to sensitivity and other dental issues.
  • Facial Pain or Discomfort - Persistent pressure from the tongue thrusting can cause jaw pain, and headaches, or even lead to TMJ disorders.
  • Appearance of Teeth - Teeth may appear crowded or misaligned due to the constant forward pressure of the tongue.

For adults experiencing or suspecting they have tongue thrust, Symptom Checker for Adults can be a useful starting point to identify potentially related symptoms.

Diagnosing Tongue Thrust

Identifying tongue thrust involves a keen eye and often the expertise of professionals across various disciplines. In both children and adults, the diagnosis starts with observing the telltale signs—such as difficulty swallowing, speech challenges, and the tongue's position when at rest or during speech. However, the process goes beyond mere observation.

Professionals like pediatricians, dentists, orthodontists, and speech-language pathologists play crucial roles in diagnosing the condition. An interdisciplinary approach ensures a comprehensive evaluation, considering not just the oral aspect but also potential underlying causes like allergies, habits, or structural anomalies. For example, a speech-language pathologist may assess the impact on speech, while an orthodontist examines the alignment of teeth and jaw.

Treating Tongue Thrust

Effective treatment for tongue thrust varies depending on the individual's age, the severity of the condition, and the underlying causes. A tailored approach, often involving a combination of exercises, professional therapies, and sometimes appliances, offers the best chance for improvement. Here's a deeper dive into the treatment options:

Exercises for Tongue Thrust

Tongue thrust exercises aim to reinforce the proper positioning of the tongue and strengthen the muscles involved in swallowing. These exercises are beneficial for both children and adults:

  • Spot Push: Ask the individual to press the tip of their tongue against a specific spot on the palate just behind the upper front teeth. Hold for a few seconds. This exercise helps train the tongue to rest in the correct position.
  • The Glide: Starting with the tongue tip behind the upper front teeth, glide the tongue backwards towards the soft palate and then return to the starting position. This motion helps in strengthening the tongue's control.
  • Balloon Puff: Instruct the person to take a deep breath and puff their cheeks out with air, keeping their lips tightly closed. Then, press the puffed cheeks with fingers while resisting the pressure with the cheek muscles. This exercise can help in strengthening the facial muscles and promoting nasal breathing, which is often a challenge for tongue thrusters.

Consistency is key with these exercises, and they should be performed several times a day for the best results.

Professional Treatments

Professional treatments for tongue thrust may involve one or more of the following, depending on the individual case:

  • Myofunctional Therapy: This therapy focuses on "retraining" the facial muscles and the tongue, encouraging them to function correctly during swallowing and resting. A certified myofunctional therapist uses various techniques and exercises tailored to the individual's needs.
  • Orthodontic Appliances: For children, appliances such as the Tongue Habit Appliance can be beneficial. This device prevents the tongue from pushing against the teeth, helping to break the habit of tongue thrusting. In some cases, orthodontic treatment with braces or Invisalign may be recommended to correct the misalignments caused by tongue thrust. Adults can also benefit from orthodontic treatments if misalignment is a concern.
  • Speech Therapy: If tongue thrust has affected speech, working with a speech therapist can be crucial. They can offer specific exercises and techniques to improve speech clarity and correct lisping associated with tongue thrust.

The treatment process is often gradual, requiring patience and persistence. Engaging in regular follow-ups with healthcare providers ensures the treatment plan remains effective and adjusts as necessary to meet the individual's evolving needs.

It's important for individuals undergoing treatment for tongue thrust, especially parents guiding their children, to remember that progress takes time. Incorporating fun and encouragement into daily exercises can significantly enhance motivation and compliance, leading to better outcomes in managing and correcting tongue thrust.

Tips for Parents

Monitoring and managing baby tongue thrust can seem daunting, but parents play a pivotal role in early identification and intervention. Here are a few tips:

  • Be Observant: Watch for signs of tongue thrust during eating, speaking, and rest. Early detection is key.
  • Encourage Proper Habits: Discourage prolonged use of bottles and pacifiers beyond the recommended age to prevent habitual tongue thrusting.
  • Exercise Together: Engage in tongue thrust exercises with your child, making them a fun and routine part of your day.

If concerns persist, seeking professional advice is crucial. Early intervention by specialists can significantly reduce the impact of tongue thrust on a child's development, paving the way for healthier oral habits and speech patterns.

Frequently Asked Questions

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  • Tongue thrust is a condition where the tongue presses too far forward in the mouth, affecting swallowing, speech, and dental alignment.
  • It can stem from natural reflexes in infants, but if it persists, it may require attention and treatment.
  • Causes vary by age, with habits such as prolonged pacifier use in babies and structural issues in adults being common contributors.
  • The condition can lead to dental problems, speech impediments, and changes in facial structure if left unaddressed.
  • Treatment options include exercises to strengthen the muscles and promote proper tongue positioning, as well as professional interventions like orthodontic appliances and myofunctional therapy.
  • Early detection and intervention are crucial for effective management and correction of tongue thrust.
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