Whether they are on the move in a car, plane, or at school, teens are most likely to reach into their backpacks for a pack of gum. The impulsive behavior to chew gum is particularly done between meals in the morning and the afternoon. While one to two sticks of gum may seem harmless, excessive gum-chewing could be a detrimental habit to teen health. According to a recent study, teens’ migraine headache symptoms are worsened by gum-chewing habits that cause jaw pain.

Children, teens, and millennials are found to consume the majority of gum, according to the U.S. National Confectioners Association. While teens represent only 7 percent of the U.S. population, they consume 14 percent of gum, with black and Hispanics found more likely to regularly chew gum than white youth. Whether chewing gum is done as a means to stay alert or combat stress, the daily habit can cause several health issues like damage to dental fillings or braces and may even lead to a need for medical attention if gum is swallowed incorrectly. Now, researchers suggest the habit of gum-chewing can trigger muscle fatigue and worsen chronic migraine headaches in teens.

Published in the journal Pediatric Neurology, a team of Israel-based researchers sought to assess the influence of daily excessive gum-chewing in older children and teenagers with chronic headaches, by placing emphasis on the effects of habit discontinuation and its reintroduction. Thirty patients, 25 girls and six boys, with a median age of 16, who all got chronic headaches, were recruited for the study. All the participants were asked to fill a questionnaire pertaining to headache characteristics, potential triggers, family history of headaches, and their gum-chewing habits.

The patients were divided into four groups, depending on their number of daily hours of gum-chewing. Group one consisted of six participants who spent up to one hour of gum-chewing a day, group two was comprised of 11 children who spent one to three hours chewing gum, group three had eight children who totaled three to six hours of gum chewing a day, and lastly, group four had five children who reported to spend more than six hours a day chewing gum.

In the study, the teens discontinued chewing gum for a month, 26 were reintroduced to the habit and were then reinterviewed after two to four weeks. The researchers found when the teens stopped chewing gum for that month, 26 of them reported an improvement in their headache symptoms, with 19 claiming they stopped getting headaches altogether. However, when the teens were reintroduced to the habit after the month was over, 20 of them reported debilitating headaches again.

The researchers reported a possible limitation that could have skewed the findings. Prior to the study, the patients were made aware of the possible association between gum-chewing and headaches which could have led to a bias.

“Nevertheless, the majority of patients reported total or marked improvement upon elimination of the trigger, which may not be the results of self-suggestion,” they wrote.

A possible explanation for the association that exists between chewing gum and headaches is the stress placed on the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), where the skull and jaw meet. Chewing gum causes unnecessary wear and tear of the cartilage that acts as a shock absorber in the jaw joints, which can lead to pain and discomfort, said Dr. Ben Kim, not involved in the study.

Gum chewers use eight different facial expression when they chew. If used excessively, this can create chronic tightness in two of these muscles that are located near an individual’s temples. Therefore, the nerves that are on this area of the head feel extreme pressure, which can lead to chronic, reoccurring headaches.

Aspartame, a common ingredient found in sugarless gum, has long been suspected of causing neurological damage. Prior to the European Food Safety Authority recently declaring the artificial sweetener as safe, studies have suggested it may provoke headaches in susceptible individuals. However, the Israeli researchers believe that the amount of aspartame released in gum is likely to be low because the flavor of gum is typically lost after the first few minutes of chewing. Rather, they believe the likely reason for the link between gum-chewing and headaches is the stress on the TMJ.

"Every doctor knows that overuse of the TMJ will cause headaches," Dr. Nathan Watemberg said in a statement. "I believe this is what's happening when children and teenagers chew gum excessively,” Watemberg said, study researcher of the Meir Medical Center, which is affiliated with Tel Aviv University, The Huffington Post reports.

Overall, the sticky truth about chewing gum is that it generates jaw stress or pain in the head or neck that could be a sign of TMJ syndrome. Teens who have a history of headaches should avoid excessively chewing gum to reduce and prevent worsening of headache symptoms.

To learn about other health dangers gum-chewing, click here.

Source: Har-Gil M, Mahajnah M, Matar M et al. The Influence of Excessive Chewing Gum Use on Headache Frequency and Severity Among Adolescents. Pediatric Neurology. 2013.