Dr. Nathan Watemberg of Meir Medical Center, affiliated with Tel Aviv University, has found that when teenagers stopped chewing gum, many of them stopped having headaches.
He says his findings, published in Pediatric 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 Watemberg.
He noted that 20 of the improved patients later agreed to go back to chewing gum. “All of them reported an immediate relapse of symptoms,” he said.
Headaches are common in childhood and become more common and frequent during adolescence, particularly among girls, according to the researcher. Triggers include stress, tiredness, lack of sleep, heat, video games, noise, sunlight, smoking, missed meals, and menstruation.
At Meir Medical Center’s Child Neurology Unit and Child Development Center and community clinics, Watemberg noticed that many patients who reported headaches were daily gum chewers. Teenage girls were particularly avid chewers, he said.
Watemberg found that in many cases, when patients stopped chewing gum at his suggestion, they got substantially better.
Taking a more statistical approach, Watemberg asked 30 patients between the ages of 6 and 19 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, he reported.
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, the researcher noted. 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, he said.
Watemberg favors the TMJ explanation. Gum is only flavorful for a short period of time, suggesting it does not contain much aspartame, he said. 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 said.
“Every doctor knows that overuse of the TMJ will cause headaches,” said Watemberg. “I believe this is what’s happening when children and teenagers chew gum excessively.”
Watemberg noted 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, he concluded.
Source: Tel Aviv University