You’ve probably heard that the tongue is the strongest muscle in the human body, but that’s actually not quite correct. For one, it’s not a single muscle. The tongue is a group of 8 muscles that work together, creating a singular organ, sort of like an octopus tentacle.
And like a tentacle, it’s extremely flexible. It’s the most flexible muscle in your body, in fact. It can move in many different directions and be contorted in many ways.
Connecting the front part of the tongue with the floor of the mouth is a thin bit of tissue called a frenum. You can see this lingual frenum if you look in a mirror while lifting your tongue. You can feel it if you curl the tip of your tongue under and back.
Sometimes, though, the lingual frenum is shorter than it should be. The $5 term for this condition is ankyloglossia, but it’s commonly known as tongue tie.
In babies, a tongue tie can make it difficult to latch when nursing – a situation that can be painful for the mom, frustrating for the child, and interfere with the baby’s ability to get all the nutrition they need. Kids who grow up with a tongue tie may have speech or swallowing difficulties or trouble eating and drinking neatly.
They are also more likely to develop parafunctional habits to compensate for the lack of tongue mobility. (“Parafunctional” means using the mouth or structures in the mouth in ways they were not meant or designed to function. Think of thumb sucking, lip chewing, and nail biting.) This can result in habitual mouth breathing and tongue thrusting.
Those habits, in turn, can actually change the shape of the face and dental arches, and the alignment of the bite.
In normal circumstances, the tongue’s strength, flexibility, and tirelessness are exactly what a baby needs for good orofacial growth. They’re born to suckle, which is actually quite a complex task when you think about it. It requires the child to suck, to swallow, and to breathe through their nose all at the same time.
Suffice it to say, this gives the child’s mouth and tongue muscles a real workout and puts regular pressure on the palate. This, in turn, causes both the upper and lower jaws – the maxilla and the mandible – to develop fully. Nice wide arches mean that there’s plenty of room for teeth to come in straight and uncrowded, reducing the likelihood of later orthodontic issues. In fact, an especially large scientific review published last year in Cureus showed that breastfeeding reduces the risk of at least some kinds of malocclusions (literally, bad bites).
Notably, wider arches affect the shape of the face, as well, urging its features to grow more forward and the face, overall, more rounded. This is as it should be. When jaws don’t grow to their full genetic potential, the result is typically a long, narrow face with a receding jaw and pushed in nose. The head and shoulders tend to be held in a more forward position, affecting posture. Other problems can emerge as the growing body attempts to compensate for these changes, including chronic pain and sleep apnea.
It’s often during breastfeeding struggles that parents become aware that tongue tie may be to blame. (Head over to our YouTube channel to see lots of examples of what tongue tie looks like, as well as lip tie, in which the labial frenums that attach each lip to the gingiva are too short. That condition can cause dental development issues, as well, such as the way that the teeth grow in.) Fortunately, switching to bottle feeding isn’t necessarily the only option. We can actually correct the problem with a simple procedure called a frenectomy.
In a frenectomy, we use a laser to release the tongue tie or lip tie so the baby has full range of use of his or her mouth muscles again. The procedure doesn’t take long at all, and for some patients, depending on the age, it can often be done without sedation and just an anesthetic for comfort. There is very little bleeding, and the site is healed completely within days. A series of exercises to be done afterwards help ensure that the results stick, that there is no relapse.
In the video below, you can see how the procedure is done here in our Austin office, where Dr. Evy Guerrero has performed over 5000 frenectomies over the years:
Although tongue-tie and lip-tie release can be done when a child is older – even in adults – Dr. Evy finds it best to treat it as early as possible. It can be safely done even in newborns.
If you suspect that tongue or lip tie might be a problem for your child, we encourage you to contact us to set up a consultation with Dr. Evy, one of the very first dentists in the greater Austin area to provide this life-changing treatment. You can also learn more about the tongue and lip tie procedure by exploring our frenectomy FAQ.