Especially during our growth and development stage, muscle movement and structural growth are inextricably tied to one another. Using the right muscle functions of the tongue, face, mouth, and jaw from a young age allows for proper development of the jaws, airway passages, and dentition (teeth arrangement).
However, not all of us make it to adulthood without experiencing abnormalities that affect the function and cause orofacial myofunctional disorders (OMDs). Thankfully, myofunctional therapy, a form of physical therapy which uses a combination of exercises, can help to correct “abnormal” facial posture and gradually rehabilitate the muscles to the optimal position.
In this blog post, we look at the common orofacial myofunctional disorders, their signs, and causes and learn how myofunctional therapy training can help to alleviate symptoms.
What is an OMD?
Orofacial myofunctional disorders are abnormalities in the development and function of the oral and facial muscles. When at rest, your tongue, teeth, jaw, and orofacial muscles should relax in a specific spot.
As it moves around, the tongue’s position in the mouth is a significant indicator of OMDs. You may not think much of the tongue other than an organ that helps us taste and facilitates digestion, but it is actually a central component of our overall health. Since the early stages of development, your tongue’s position is crucial in shaping the roof of the mouth, which is also the floor of the sinus.
Studies have shown that the tongue's best resting position is on the mouth's roof. This position supports the upper jaw while facilitating breathing and swallowing patterns. When eating or drinking, the tongue also follows a specific pattern. However, in patients with OMDs, it adopts a different pattern referred to as a tongue thrust.
Signs of OMDs
Left uncorrected over time, OMDs can lead to complications such as a lazy tongue, mouth breathing, crooked or misaligned teeth, narrow dental arches and facial features. It can also induce speech problems, sinus issues, teeth grinding, sleep-disordered breathing, obstructive sleep apnea, snoring, and the list goes on…
All these issues can affect function and cause a domino effect for many other potentially life-long health concerns, but they can be fixed by myofunctional therapy.
Image credit: https://iosmmw.com/tongue-thrust/
A tongue thrust occurs when the tongue presses against or between the front teeth while swallowing. Eventually, as the tongue constantly pushes against the teeth, it could force them out of alignment, leading to crooked teeth. This process can also cause malocclusion or an abnormal bite, which is when the upper and lower teeth aren't properly aligned. Because of this, people with OMDs have difficulties biting, chewing, swallowing, and digesting.
Maintaining correct orofacial muscle position is vital for breathing. Nasal breathing is regarded as the “correct” way of breathing as it humidifies, warms, and filters the air before it goes into our lungs. But that’s not all; nasal breathing also aids in the proper development of the sinus and airway passages. (Learn more from my blog post Mouth breathing: What it does to you and simple ways to prevent it)
Chronic mouth breathing can have severe consequences for facial features in children as they grow (e.g. long face syndrome), cause sleep-disordered breathing, and frequent oral health complications such as periodontal disease, gum disease, and constant dry mouth.
A person with improper lip and tongue muscle posture may experience difficulty in articulation and forming the sounds of normal speech, such as a lisp. A lisp is an inability to articulate specific letter sounds clearly. Difficulty pronouncing the letter “S” or “Z” and instead sounding a “th” sound is the most common form of speech impairment known as a frontal lisp that can be a result of having an OMD.
Cosmetic problems related to OMDs
Facial muscles are a big giveaway of poor oral posture, often causing a dull, sluggish appearance. Constantly parted lips is another sign that could signify mouth breathing. Facial grimacing (pursing or tightening the cheek, chin, and lip muscles) when swallowing incorrectly indicates incorrect muscle usage and can give the chin a knobby appearance.
Causes of OMDs
OMDs can be a result of a combination of factors. However, they all have one thing in common — they force the tongue into an “unusual” resting position. In a nutshell, OMDs are caused by a progression of abnormalities in tongue position, swallowing patterns, and movements. Here are some of the most common causes:
Genetic imperfections such as being born with craniofacial abnormalities or a cleft palate
Acquired habits such as thumb sucking and prolonged use of a pacifier or bottle during childhood
Airway obstructions or constrictions caused by sinus problems, allergies, polyps, enlarged tonsils, or anything that’s blocking the airway
The key to preventing the onset of OMD symptoms is to address any muscle dysfunction as early as possible. So if you notice that your child is picking up habits like thumb sucking or experiencing signs of speech, eating, or breathing difficulties, ask your doctor or dentist to recommend a myofunctional therapist and begin therapy as quickly as possible.
What is myofunctional therapy?
You may ask, "what is myofunctional therapy used for" but think of it as physical therapy for your face. We’re all familiar with the power of physical therapy and how it can help to restore one’s bodily functions. Oral myofunctional therapy, orofacial myofunctional therapy, tongue therapy, or mouth therapy are no different. These are a combination of myofunctional therapy exercises targeting the face, mouth, and tongue muscles designed to improve OMD symptoms.
By practicing proper tongue position (pushing tongue against the roof of mouth rather than the teeth, a.k.a tongue thrust), lip seal, and nasal breathing, disordered breathing, issues talking, and eating may be gradually corrected. There is also evidence that myofunctional therapy can help snoring. So if you have a noisy bed partner, get them to see a myofunctional therapist so you can both sleep soundly!
Our mouth, face, and throat muscles must be positioned properly and coordinate as they move together for smooth breathing, speech, and eating. Myofunctional therapy success does not only rely merely on early training; it requires motivation and persistence to perform the daily exercises to restore and maintain proper muscle functions. If your child or anyone you know shows signs of OMDs, seek help quickly to prevent any further permanent changes.