Many people chew the insides of their mouth as a result of stress or anxiety, but this self-injurious disorder can have serious health implications.
Medically reviewed by Dr Juliet McGrattan (MBChB) and words by Jenny L. Cook
Can’t stop gnawing on the inside skin of your mouth? Cheek biting, similar to nail biting, is a stress-related habit that stems from anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder and if left untreated, can lead to serious health concerns.
We speak to dental surgeon Dr Richard Marques about the common causes and potential health implications of cheek biting:
What is cheek biting?
Cheek biting, also known as morsicatio buccarum, is a chronic condition characterised by repetitively biting the inside of the mouth. It is a self-injurious habit, which can be undertaken either accidentally or repeatedly on purpose, and is considered a mental health disorder if it interferes with your quality of life or causes serious injury or distress.
‘Cheek biting is relatively common especially in urban cities, such as London, where stress levels tend to be higher,’ says Dr Marques. ‘However, severe cheek biting and habitual cheek biting are more rare.’
What triggers cheek biting?
Common triggers include stress, anxiety and boredom, and previous research suggests that body-focused repetitive behaviours such as this often begin in late childhood and can last throughout adulthood.
‘Sometimes it happens when people are grinding their teeth or eating,’ says Dr Marques. ‘Other times people chew their cheeks as a habit. Cheek biting is usually seen as lesions, which appear as white patches, on the inside of the cheeks that corresponds with the area where the teeth meet. It can also affect the lips and tongue, although the cheeks are the most common.’
When is cheek biting a problem?
Cases of cheek biting vary in severity, from one-off occurrences to deep and painful self-inflicted injuries. The primary consequence of biting the inside of the cheek repeatedly is injury to your mouth tissue, which can lead to mouth sores and ulcers.
Often, cheek biters have a favourite area to nibble away at, meaning that they repetitively break the skin in the same place inside the mouth.
Cheek biting varies in severity, from one-off occurrences to deep and painful self-inflicted injuries.
In severe cases, the broken and jagged sensation of the bitten skin creates an additional compulsion to ‘smooth out’ the affected area by biting again, perpetuating the habit.
‘Pain and ulcers are the most harmless outcomes,’ says Dr Marques. ‘However ulcers can cause problems, as they are liable to get bitten again once formed.’
Can cheek biting cause oral cancer?
While there is research that links mouth lesions with mouth cancer, it is lacking and non-specific to cheek biting. However, long-standing wounds – present in persistent cheek-biters – are cited by the NHS as potential causes of oral cancer, as they cause ulcers or wounds on the tongue.
‘Deep and repeated cheek biting is the most dangerous,’ explains Dr Marques, ‘as this can cause the problems in the buccal mucosa that may, in the worst and extremely rare instances, lead to increased risk of oral cancer due to changes in the cheek tissue, which can eventually result in changes to the cells.’
How to stop cheek biting
If you find yourself persistently biting the inside of your mouth, you might benefit from a bite-guard. Ask your dentist for advice.
‘If grinding is the issue then a bite-guard worn during the night, or even during the day, can help to stop the trauma on the cheeks,’ advises Dr Marques. ‘This is a semi-rigid device that prevents the teeth grinding on each other and also covers the sharp areas of the cusps; the biting surface.’
Stress and cheek biting
If it’s stress-related or an obsessive-compulsive issue, then you might benefit from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
To minimise the damage done by cheek biting, give the following tips a go and see if they help:
- Identify your triggers
Find yourself chewing away when you have a looming deadline or presentation? Once you know what sets you off, you can find something else to chew on, the most obvious choice being gum.
- Use lip balm
Similarly, if it is a lip-biting problem, applying lip gloss / lip balm may help you abstain, or at least make you realise what you are doing.
Lower your stress levels and provide alternative, healthy anxiety solutions such as regular exercise and meditation.
- Try hypnotherapy
In some instances, hypnosis has been found to help with obsessive-compulsive habits. Find a hypnotherapist through the Professional Standards Authority.