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If you’re a nail-biter, you probably don’t think of something like this happening:

fingernail lodged in gums behind front teeth

Can’t see what that tiny arrow is pointing to? Here’s what doctors removed from the patient’s gums:

fingernail removed from patient's gums

While the procedure was a success and there were no ill effects afterwards, cases like this one offer a good reminder that parafunctional habits like nail biting can actually damage your teeth and gums.

“Parafunctional” refers to the habit of using the mouth, tongue, or jaw in ways you don’t normally use them. Other common parafunctional habits include teeth grinding (bruxing), tongue biting, lip chewing, and thumb sucking.

While getting a sliver of fingernail jammed into your gums isn’t exactly common, a serious nail biting habit can contribute to dental problems over time. These include

  • Enamel erosion from the friction of the nails against the teeth, making the the teeth more vulnerable to chipping, cracking, and decay.
  • Weakening of the tooth roots, resulting in the shifting of teeth and the creation of gaps or malocclusion (a bite that doesn’t come together correctly).
  • Injury to the gums. The sharp, jagged edges of bitten nails can scratch those soft tissues, making them more vulnerable to infection. Think, too, of all the bacteria and other grime that collects under your fingernails and how nail-biting introduces that gunk to your body via the mouth.
  • Bad breath – again, from all the bacteria you’re introducing to your mouth.
  • Bruxism, or habitual teeth grinding, which can eventually lead to chronic jaw, head, neck, and upper body pain.

But any habit can be broken, and there are lots of great tip sheets out there for helping you or your child accomplish that. Another option for both kids and adults is myofunctional therapy, in which such habits are broken by retraining the mouth and facial muscles to work correctly.

The ideal, though, is to get at the cause, not just the symptom. If you find that your habit is often triggered by anxiety or stress, consider what you can do to address those issues. A wide array of natural options are available to help you out, from essential oils to exercise, supplements to meditation. Some of the most commonly suggested herbal remedies include

  • Chamomile.
  • Passionflower.
  • Valerian.
  • Lemon balm.
  • Kava.
  • Lavender.
  • Ashwagandha.

Supplements such as magnesium, B-complex, 5-HTP, and L-theanine may also be helpful.

Look, too, for activities that can help you release the stress or anxiety or generate positive experiences in their place. Here are a couple of good lists of ideas to get you started thinking about what might work well for you.

Change doesn’t happen overnight. Science suggests that it takes a little over two months for a new habit to become automatic – sometimes less, sometimes a good deal more. But when you’re making a change to benefit your health – oral and systemic alike – we think it’s worth both the time and effort.

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