There are many bad habits that can affect the health of your teeth. If asked, you may be able to quickly identify, for example, that smoking can lead to long-term oral health issues (or, in the same vain, chewing tobacco).
Just like with all vices, we view many of them on a spectrum and think that some bad habits aren’t as “bad” as other. Maybe a soda isn’t as bad in your mind as smoking, but worse than eating an occasional piece of candy.
But, what about those little daily habits that you don’t think about at all—like biting your nails? Can they actually be just as bad for the longevity of your teeth as smoking or even soda consumption?
Somewhat similar to grinding your teeth, the damage nail biting does to your teeth slowly compounds over time until you wind up with a serious problem.
“Nails aren’t too hard,” you might be thinking, “how could it really damage my teeth?” If you are nail biter or have a child that is a nail biter, then keep reading to learn how this mundane habit can ultimately take a teeth toll. We’ll also quickly cover a few other “bad habits” that you might not know are damaging your teeth.
Are you a nail biter?
If you bite your nails, you are part of approximately 30% of the population that shares this habit. That number is even higher among teenagers, where it’s estimated that nearly half (45%) bite their nails.
Nail biting has been a documented habit dating back thousands of years, even back to the ancient Greek philosopher Cleanthes. Writings describe his habit extensively, and other philosophers also commented on it in their writings.
Psychologists note that everyone bites their nails on occasion (sometimes thanks only to our need to get rid of a hang nail), but they start to get concerned when it causes bodily harm or impedes basics of daily life.
For those with this habit in full swing, have you wondered why people bite their nails? When you know you should quit, but can’t, what is actually going on in your brain?
Psychology behind nail biting
Many people have offered their take on the reasons for nail biting, including Sigmund Freud. However, most of these theories have been thrown out with time.
The desire to self-harm was once thought to be a leading reason for the biting. However, that theory has since been thrown out, too. Instead, researchers believe that this behavior is more closely aligned with obsessive compulsive tendencies. Psychologists today have come to a more plausible theory of nail biting: it can provide a temporary escape, distraction, or bit of pleasure or relaxation for the biter. Many people get the urge to bite when they’re under-stimulated (i.e., bored) or overstimulated (stressed out or excited).
How does nail biting damage your teeth?
The General Academy of Dentistry has pointed out that nail biting could crack, chip or wear down their front teeth from the stress caused by repeated biting. Just like constantly chewing on hard candy or ice can wear down your teeth, the same can be caused by your nails.
Regularly biting your nails can also cause your teeth to shift out of place, which can later require correctional braces or a retainer. Chewing on your fingernails can also lead to a chipped tooth or broken dental restorations. For those who wear braces, teeth are at even greater risk for root resorption (a shortening of the roots) or tooth loss, since braces already put increased pressure on the teeth.
Another problem that could result from nail biting is the development of TMJ. This occurs when the temporomandibular joint, which connects your jawbone to the skull, becomes damaged. This is can lead to pain in your ear or jaw, difficult chewing, popping or clicking sounds when moving your jaw, or difficult simply opening or closing your mouth.
Finally, nail biting can also lead to teeth grinding. If you are used to chewing your nails while nervous or anxious, the inability to do so may cause you to clench your jaw and grind your teeth. Over time this can lead to jaw pain, flattened teeth and enamel wear.
A special note: damage to the gums
Nail biting can also cause damage to your gums. Start by taking a look at your finger nails. While we hope they’re all clean, most of the time there are millions of germs imbedded right below the surface. The germs can cause infections in the mouth and result in severe halitosis (or bad breath). The most common issue for nail biting is transporting bacteria to your mouth. The hand, on average, has roughly 150 different species of bacteria at any given time. And the majority of that bacteria lives under your nails.
Transporting these microorganisms to your mouth can cause gum infections, bad breath, and overall compromise your oral health. In addition, if your fingers have warts on them, it’s possible to spread those warts to parts of your mouth.
How to quit
Just like with other bad habits, stopping nail biting can be difficult. To ward off the temptation, you can start by cutting your nails short and coating them with a special nail polish that tastes bad.
To get to the root of the problem, identify your triggers and work to eliminate those so you won’t have the desire to bite your nails.
Reminder of other habits
Since nail biting might seem less severe than other more dangerous habits like smoking, it’s important to remind readers that all these habits can lead to oral health issues. Commonly forgotten other bad habits include chewing on ice (which can easily crack a tooth or break an implant), using your teeth as tools (your teeth are not a bottle opener!) and chewing on the tips of pens and pencils. Oral health is important and there are a lot of external factors that can play a role. Make sure to drop bad habits to keep your mouth healthy!