Got a Migraine? It May Be Because You Are Chewing Gum

Tel Aviv University study finds that 87% of teens who quit chewing gum experience significant relief. Teenagers are known to chew many pieces of gum, and the bubble popping, lip smacking, and discarded gum stuck to the sole of the shoes give parents and teachers a headache.

Now, Dr. Nathan Watemberg of Tel Aviv University-affiliated Meir Medical Center has found that teenagers as well as younger children who chew gum are giving themselves headaches. 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 Dr. Watemberg. “Twenty of the improved patients later agreed to go back to chewing gum, and all of them reported an immediate relapse of symptoms.”

The results are convincing, even though the experiment was conducted with a small sample size.

Right under our noses
Headaches are common in childhood and they become more frequent and common during the teen years, especially for girls. Some things that trigger headaches include stress, tiredness, lack of sleep, heat, smoking, missed meals, noise, video games, sunlight, and menstruation. But until now, there has been little medical research on the correlation between chewing gum and having headaches.

At Meir Medical Center’s Child Neurology Unit and Child Development Center and community clinics, Dr. Watemberg noticed that many patients who reported headaches were daily gum chewers. Teenage girl patients were particularly avid chewers — a finding supported by previous dental studies. Dr. Watemberg found that in many cases, when patients stopped chewing gum at his suggestion, they got substantially better.

Two previous studies have linked chewing gum to having headaches; however, they offered different explanations. One study explained that chewing gum causes stress to the temporomandibular joint, which is also called TMJ. This is the place of the body where the jaw meets the skull. The second study explained that aspartame, which is the artificial sweetener in gum products, is the cause of the headaches. The TMJ disorder has been proven to cause headaches and the evidence for aspartame is not clear.

Gumming up the works
Dr. Watemberg favors the TMJ explanation. Gum is only flavorful for a short period of time, suggesting it does not contain much aspartame, he says. 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 says.

“Every doctor knows that overuse of the TMJ will cause headaches,” said Dr. Watemberg. “I believe this is what’s happening when children and teenagers chew gum excessively.”

Dr. Watemberg says that his findings can be put to use immediately. By telling teenagers with chronic headaches to simply stop chewing gum, doctors can provide effective and quick treatment to help them without the need for expensive medications and diagnostic tests.

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