If you struggle with nasal breathing, you may be suffering from more than dry mouth. Chronic mouth breathing can actually have a huge impact on your daily life as well as when you sleep. Luckily, these issues can be treated with myofunctional therapy.
We interviewed Taylor (RDH, OMT, BS of Dental Hygiene) our very own orofacial myofunctional therapist. She’s perfectly qualified to understand what it is, who needs it, and how it works. You can read the full conversation below.
Myofunctional therapy is a way of training and strengthening the lips, tongue, face, and throat. It’s ideal for people who struggle with chronic mouth breathing. Nasal breathing is essential for good overall health and can lead to serious problems if you aren’t doing it consistently. Different factors can cause chronic nasal breathing, but myofunctional therapy can aid in correcting these problems and get you back to a good night’s sleep.
What is myofunctional therapy?
Taylor: That’s a pretty common question, not just with the average person but even among doctors, too. The official definition is “neurologic re-education of the oral and facial muscles through a series of therapeutic techniques,” which is just a fancy way of saying the training and strengthening of the lips, tongue, face, and throat.
Myofunctional therapy is used for a wide range of developmental aids and issues. As a provider, I want to know that the majority of information is coming from the Academy of Orofacial Myofunctional Therapy, which is where my therapy training came from.
Who needs myofunctional therapy?
Taylor: You’ll hear a lot of things similar to, “Well, everyone needs myofunctional therapy.” While that’s true to some degree, it’s not for everyone and that’s important to note. For instance, many people think that it’s mainly for kids, but a lot of adults can benefit from it, too.
This is because myofunctional therapy focuses on nasal breathing. Breathing is the body’s main function and it will compensate in any possible way to do so. That’s how habits are formed, so a lot of people call me a “habit corrector.”
Why is nasal breathing so important?
Taylor: One major factor is the release of nitric oxide. Nitric oxide comes from the paranasal sinuses when you breathe through your nose. It’s responsible for:
- Pain regulation
- Proper blood flow to the muscles
- Allowing oxygen to reach the body and the brain
So you just function much better when you breathe through your nose.
Nasal breathing is also imperative for proper sleep. Poor sleep can send your body into sympathetic overdrive, our emergency backup system. This is made worse by oral breathing, which causes your jaw and tongue to rest further back. In this position, your tongue actually blocks your airway, resulting in the lack of nitric oxide.
Mouth breathing can also cause hormonal imbalances within your body, such as insulin and ghrelin. Ghrelin is responsible for signaling the brain to store energy. Issues with this hormone can cause you to go into survival mode. Leptin is responsible for regulating your appetite as well as your metabolism.
And all of this can be caused by poor sleep?
Taylor: Yep, if you mouth breath long term, you can have an imbalance of all of those and that’s from breathing through your mouth while you sleep. Consistent mouth breathing usually results in frequent:
- Ear infections
- Sinus issues
- Headaches and migraines
- Bedwetting or frequent trips to the bathroom
Other issues related to poor sleep include obstructive sleep apnea, gastric reflux, anxiety, and depression. Some of these problems can be genetic, but these and much more can be symptoms of chronic mouth breathing over a long period of time.
Who’s at risk for developing orofacial myofunctional disorders?
Taylor: People with tongue ties are at a high risk for chronic mouth breathing and skeletal disorders. This is due to an anchor on your tongue that holds down your lower jaw. Some folks find ways to compensate and don’t run into any issues. However, we have patients who really struggle depending on the severity of the tie or anchor.
Prolonged bottle-feeding is another factor. This time is critical when learning to breathe and swallow at the same time and bottle-feeding can delay weaning off liquids and moving to solid foods. Failure to do so can delay important muscle functions that help you tolerate textures of foods early on in life. People with labial ties (or lip ties) can also have difficulty closing their lips properly.
Some other risk factors for myofunctional disorders are:
- Thumb sucking
- Tongue sucking
- Blanket chewers
- Finger chewers
Is mouth breathing only an issue when sleeping, or is it a constant problem?
Taylor: Mouth breathing is never ideal. I’ve actually seen it a lot more with masks. There’s a number of things that can cause it, like nasal obstructions due to allergies. I said earlier that your body’s main function is to breathe, so it will compensate in any way to do so. The emergency method is to open your mouth, but you will eventually unintentionally develop that habit.
That’s why mouth breathing is such a problem in East Tennessee. We have very bad allergies here and everyone is stuffed up because of it. This causes many people in our region to breathe through their mouths as a way to compensate for a lack of oxygen, but it can lead to other negative effects. The severity of allergies also increases the less we breathe through the nose.
What can patients expect from myofunctional therapy?
Taylor: We have tons of tools at our disposal to help children and adults breathe and sleep easier. We start by promoting:
- Nasal breathing exercises
- Proper tongue posture
- Breastfeeding and slow-flow bottles
- Switching to solid foods around 6 months old
- Switching to regular cups around 9 months old
We also work to discourage habits people develop to compensate for not breathing through their noses. These are known as parafunctional habits and they affect the mouth, tongue, and jaw of people who chronically breathe through their mouths.
Therapy appointments are monthly and can take between 5 months to a year depending on how dedicated the patient is. There are special appliances that may need to be purchased as well as the cost of therapy. I also do Zoom calls to check in with my patients, evaluate their progress, and answer any questions they may have.
You can train and strengthen your lips, tongue, face, and throat with myofunctional therapy. This helps you stop breathing through your mouth and restore your nasal breathing. You were built to breathe, and nasal breathing helps make it easier. Factors for chronic mouth breathing can vary, but myofunctional therapy can correct them to restore your breathing and restorative sleep.