oral dysfunction

Learn more about what oral dysfunction is and how it affects breathing, sleep & so much more


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Explore the ins and outs of oral dysfunction with these common FAQs.

What is oral dysfunction?

The term oral dysfunction encompasses a broad array of conditions that impair the normal and healthy function of the face and mouth.

Orofacial myofunctional disorders
(OMDs) can affect people of all ages, from newborns to senior citizens, for a variety of reasons. Whatever the root cause, orofacial disorders interfere with the function of the muscles of the face and mouth.
If you have oral dysfunction you may experience difficulty moving the jaw, lips, cheeks, or tongue. This can have disastrous effects on your physical and mental health.


What causes oral dysfunction?

Any disease, condition, or event that causes malfunction or damage to the nervous system (the brain, spinal cord, and nerves) can potentially affect oral function. Underdeveloped upper and lower jaws and oral restrictions such as tongue tie, lip tie, and buccal tie can also be at the root of oral dysfunction.

In adults, the causes of oral dysfunction are often easier to identify, such as physical trauma to the head, stroke, or a neurological disease like Parkinson’s or multiple sclerosis. In children, the causes of oral dysfunction can be harder to pin down.

Possible causes of oral dysfunction include:

  • Physical trauma
  • Neurological, congenital, and chronic conditions
  • Oral restrictions & airway obstructions
  • Developmental factors
  • Sensory issues & poor orofacial habits

Click here to learn more about the causes of oral dysfunction.

Signs & symptoms of oral dysfunction

Oral dysfunction is deeply intertwined with feeding issues, speech issues, and airway obstructions.

Feeding issues

Healthy digestion requires efficient chewing and swallowing. This depends upon seamless coordination between muscles in the face, mouth, and throat. Many parents begin to notice signs of an oral dysfunction in their children during infancy due to difficulties breastfeeding or feeding problems at mealtimes.

Speech issues

If you have difficulty controlling your lip, mouth, tongue, and jaw muscles, it can lead to speech problems. Dysarthria is a type of speech disorder related to weak muscles or challenges coordinating the muscles of the face and mouth.

Parents often notice signs of apraxia of speech (also known as verbal apraxia) in their children as they begin to learn how to talk. This shows up as trouble speaking, poor articulation of phonemes, or difficulty saying what they want to say consistently. Apraxia of speech in adults can arise due to a stroke, a health condition, or physical trauma such as a head injury.


Airway obstruction & sleep issues

Behavioral and learning difficulties are often misdiagnosed as ADHD or hyperactivity. In many cases, the root cause is an oral dysfunction that affects airway function and causes sleep-disordered breathing. This increases the stress hormone cortisol, making it harder for children to sleep through the night and to wind down at the end of the day.

Sensory issues & poor orofacial habits

Oral function, especially when it comes to oro-motor dysfunction, can be affected by sensory issues. For this reason, oral dysfunction may be associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Nutrition can be compromised due to aversion to certain foods, textures, and issues with gagging or vomiting when eating. While some are hypersensitive, others have the opposite problem and are unable to sense the taste, texture, or temperature of foods.

Some oral dysfunction issues are due to poor orofacial habits (like open-mouth breathing, tongue thrusting, and tooth grinding). Proper, healthy habits can be relearned through exercises and practice with a specialist such as a myofunctional therapist or speech pathologist.

Click here to learn more about the signs & symptoms of oral dysfunction.


Why orofacial health matters

The function of your face, mouth, and throat is a big deal.

Your orofacial health affects your sleep, memory, ability to communicate, learn, grow, and even your mood and emotions. Unfortunately, millions of people live with oral dysfunction and don’t even know it.

Functional problems span everything from poor chewing habits and bad posture to full-blown obstructive sleep apnea and sleep disordered breathing. Sleep and airway issues have been linked to serious diseases such as diabetes, heart problems, dementia, anxiety, depression, behavioral issues, insomnia, and more. The good news is that there is a lot you can do to improve your airway and your overall health.


Follow your instinct

Whether your child is experiencing behavioral issues at school, your baby is having trouble breastfeeding, or you are falling asleep at the wheel, listen to your gut if you think something is wrong. Then find out whether an oral dysfunction or airway issue is a root cause. When normal function is disrupted, there is a lot you can do to take action.

For mild problems and symptoms, addressing your habits, environment, and nutrition can help. In some cases you may need to see medical experts and surround yourself with a team of healthcare professionals from various fields to create an effective treatment plan.

While some cases can be resolved with therapy (such as myofunctional, occupational, or speech therapy), others require treatment or surgery with a doctor, dentist, orthodontist, ENT, surgeon, or another specialist.

Strive for airway health during pregnancy and infancy

Airway health starts in the womb. Babies begin to use the muscles for sucking and swallowing in utero, which influences their airway health throughout life. They continue to develop these muscles through breastfeeding. Unfortunately, a bottle doesn’t provide the same functional benefits as the breast.

It is very important that those who are pregnant practice healthy breathing and address sleep disordered breathing and obstructive sleep apnea. These measures may even play a role in reducing the risk of preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, hypertension, and premature birth. This is important because full-term babies are born with well developed lungs and muscles, setting the stage for airway health.

The benefits of breastfeeding for orofacial development

There is no doubt that breastfeeding is the best way for babies to get the nourishment they need for optimal development. But the benefits don’t stop there.

The muscle patterns used for breastfeeding actually influence orofacial development, speech and language, airway health, sleep and much more.

The complexities of breastmilk and breastfeeding are just beginning to be understood. Breastfeeding research continues to explore the remarkable biochemical, physiological, and emotional relationship between mother and baby and the astounding properties of breastmilk itself.


The breast IS the best (and not just for nutrition and immunity)

Most people are familiar with the fact that breast milk is the ideal food for a baby, both for the nutritional properties and antibodies found in it. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The muscles used in suck-swallow patterns for breastfeeding actually set the foundation for optimal orofacial development and bone growth.

You’ve probably noticed that soft spot at the top of an infant’s head called the fontanel, which will slowly harden over time as the bones of the skull fuse together. Similarly, a baby’s palate is surprisingly flexible and movable, especially during the first 6 months of life outside of the womb. Breastfeeding stimulates strong tongue movement against the palate and gums. These muscle movement patterns used for breastfeeding are crucial in helping to shape the upper jaw and facial bones.

The way your baby uses face, mouth, and throat muscles to suck and swallow milk actually influences their orofacial development. This will, in turn, lay a foundation for your child’s teeth and airway. Breastfeeding is believed to help prevent serious issues such as sleep disordered breathing, obstructive sleep apnea, mouth breathing, and crooked teeth.

Click here to learn more about the benefits of breastfeeding.


Oral dysfunction & sleep problems

Unfortunately, an alarming percentage of children aren’t getting the nightly rest they need to thrive.

In the last ten years, sleep problems have tripled across the globe. Some experts estimate up to 24% of all children have frequent problems sleeping.

And let’s be honest — if your kids aren’t sleeping well, then you as a parent aren’t either. Thankfully, there is a lot you can do to improve your child's sleep (and your own)!


Why is sleep so important for my child’s development?

During sleep, your child experiences vital restorative processes that impact their mental health, physical wellbeing, mood, and behavior. When sleep is interrupted or when children don’t get enough sleep, their health and development is in danger

In her book Sleep-Wrecked Kids: Helping Parents Raise Happy, Healthy Kids, One Sleep at a Time, myofunctional expert and speech pathologist Sharon Moore writes about how sleep problems in children impact the following four key domains for development:

  1. Physical (growth and immunity)
  2. Mental (IQ, focus, and problem solving)
  3. Emotional (mood and emotional regulation)
  4. Social (response and interaction with others)


What are the consequences of my child not sleeping well at night?

Sleep issues can have serious consequences. In the short term, poor sleep affects your child’s development, learning, socialization, mood and immune system. Poor sleep Children with obstructive sleep apnea are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD. Sadly, the majority of children who have obstructive sleep apnea are never even diagnosed.

In the long-term poor sleep has been associated with physical problems including your kid’s appetite, growth, brain, heart, blood pressure and jaw and teeth development. Sleep problems are also closely linked to mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Sleep research has found that patients with obstructive sleep apnea have a significantly higher risk of lung, kidney, skin, and pancreatic cancers. Snoring and obstructive sleep apnea have also been linked to heart issues, dementia, and poor memory. Sleep fragmentation and disturbed sleep has even been linked to stroke, Alzheimer's, diabetes, and schizophrenia.


What could be the cause of my child’s sleep problems & what can I do to help my kids sleep better?

Some types of sleep problems are behavioral and can be remedied with changes to their daily and nightly routine, physical environment, emotional wellbeing and sleep hygiene. Other sleep problems have an underlying physical or physiological issue, such as a tongue tie, oral dysfunction, or airway issue. These often require professional diagnosis and treatment and may benefit from myofunctional therapy, surgery, orthodontics, release procedure, or another type of intervention.


What can I do to help my child learn good sleep habits?

In Sleep-Wrecked Kids, Moore writes that the first step for parents is to develop good sleep literacy by knowing what good sleep and bad sleep habits are. Turn your child’s bedroom into a “sleep sanctuary” and create a consistent bedtime routine. There are several simple yet foundational changes that you can make to start improving your child’s sleep in just a few weeks. Master your own “sleep formula” and build regularly-used triggers that help signal your child’s mind and body that it is time to wind down and sleep.

Create a sleep-supportive physical environment paying attention to:

  • Light (make sure the room is dark or dimly lit with soft rose-colored light with a timer to trigger the release of melatonin)
  • Screens (Avoid exposing your child to screens or bright artificial lights before bed.)
  • Temperature (comfortable ideal temperature of 64.4 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Bedding and pajamas that help them stay comfortable at that temperature
  • Noises (quiet or noise machine or gentle music)
  • Smells (avoid chemicals or smells that could disrupt sleep or hormones, use sleep supporting essential oils like rose or lavender)
  • Making sure your child isn’t hungry, thirsty, or in pain.


When is it time to see a specialist?

If you’ve already adjusted and improved your daytime and nighttime routine, optimized your child’s physical and emotional environment, and put in place best practices and sleep hygiene, and your child is still not sleeping well, then it is time to find a trusted specialist who can help.

If you suspect your child has a serious sleep disorder like obstructive sleep apnea, then it is important to get a diagnosis and treatment from a medical specialist. Moore encourages parents to “seek out the medical, dental, and allied health practitioners who have a special interest in sleep disorders and upper airway health.”


Finding help & treatment for oral dysfunction

The team at health:latch can help diagnose and determine the best treatment plan for overcoming oral dysfunction issues.

Treating oral dysfunction requires a multi-disciplinary approach that gets to the "root cause" of its presence. Oral dysfunction can cause short- and long-term health issues that are different for each age, which requires a custom treatment plan built just for you.

To set yourself up for success, you want a team that communicates with each other across disciplines for a holistic health approach. A custom, multi-disciplinary approach to address accompanying issues like oral restrictions, speech & language issues, and airway health & sleep will help your family have the best possible outcome.

Learn more about the health:latch clinic and how we can help with your family's specific needs here.

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