How Chewing Gum Can Cause Headaches

Giving up gum reduced symptoms for most teens in a recent small study.
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Calvin from the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes used to read a special interest magazine about gum called Chewing, which, according to the Calvin and Hobbes Wiki, contained articles on cultivating a "mandibular fitness regime," for a stronger jaw. As an avid chewer, perhaps Calvin was right to be concerned about his jaw’s resilience—a recent study from Tel Aviv University, published in Pediatric Neurology shows an association between “excessive gum-chewing” and chronic headaches in adolescents.

The researchers cite a recent survey that found that 84 percent of high school students suffered from recurring headaches. They note that “very little has been reported in the literature on gum-chewing as a potential trigger [for headaches]: one report pertains a single case attributed to excessive gum-chewing, whereas another study described three adults whose headaches were considered to be associated with the sweetener aspartame present in the gum.”

So, to test the theory, they recruited 30 adolescents with chronic headaches who said they chewed gum daily. The participants were divided into categories based on how much time they spent chewing every day: up to one hour, one to three hours, three to six hours, or more than six hours per day. (Who is chewing gum more than six hours per day?? That’s actually chewing gum like it’s your job.)

Then this cross-section of Chewing’s target audience was asked to quit, cold turkey, for a month, and report any changes in their symptoms. They didn’t use any other therapies for their headaches during this time.

Eighty-seven percent of the patients reported significant improvement, and of the 20 who agreed to go back to chewing gum afterward, all 20 immediately saw their symptoms come back.

This is a small study, and we’d need more research to adequately test this hypothesis, but it has potential. Despite the previous study mentioned above, the researchers here didn’t think the aspartame in the gum was associated with the headaches—after all, aspartame is in a lot of soft drinks, which the kids weren’t abstaining from during their chewing fast.

Instead, they posit that the kids’ excessive chewing habit put an extra burden on the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), the hinge joint of the jaw. And headaches have been linked to dysfunctional TMJs by previous research. So it certainly seems possible that chewing more than you need to just to pulverize and swallow your food could cause jaw strain that leads to a headache. At least enough that if you’re smacking on some Double Bubble and feel a throbbing in your temples come on, you might want to try spitting it out.

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Julie Beck is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Health Channel.

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