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Short on evidence, dubious therapies turn to the tongue

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When Kimberly Sheldon was 47, she says made the biggest mistake of her life. That was in 2018, when she says that a dentist explained to her that cutting the tissue under her tongue would help her jaw pain, gum recession, and occasional headaches. Her issues, he said, could be due to the fact that the back of her tongue couldn't reach the roof of her mouth. With a quick laser slice, a $600 charge, and some instruction on tongue exercises, he seemed confident that she would feel better soon after.

But, according to her account, the dentist didn't explain the possible risks, which include nerve damage and scarring that can restrict the tongue. Sheldon only found out about the issues after she experienced them. Since then, she says, the effects have torn her life apart.

The idea that tongue position can contribute to health problems is not well-supported by research, but it's edging towards the mainstream. Millions of people are watching YouTube videos about how the tongue allegedly influences the face and jaw, and books, videos, websites, and social media posts say that improper tongue position can contribute to a host of health issues — dental problems, sleep apnea, headaches, neck and back pain, and more. These ideas are especially becoming popular in dentistry — echoed by Colgate and a dental hygienists' magazine. Some even claim that changing the tongue position can make people more attractive.

Some tongue-ties are undisputed diagnoses — generally in very young children. In infancy, a type of tongue-tie where the frenulum attaches all the way to the front of the tongue and severely restricts its movement has been treated for hundreds of years. More controversial are hidden, or posterior, tongue-ties, which, as Undark previously reported, are increasingly diagnosed and cut in children. Adult tongue-tie diagnoses also lack rigorous evidence.

Despite the limited evidence, myofunctional therapy and tongue-tie surgeries are increasingly promoted as a treatment for the many ailments attributed to poor tongue posture in adults. Especially concerning, some experts say, is the claim that the therapy is an alternative treatment for sleep apnea, despite a lack of evidence and with possible risks to patients.

Many doctors, however, caution against the idea that changing tongue posture is a panacea. "I think people want to believe that myofunctional therapy is helpful," Eric Kezirian, a professor and physician of otolaryngology – head and neck surgery at the University of Southern California, wrote in an email. "The problem is that the history of health care is littered with thousands upon thousands of treatments that were not helpful, or were in many cases harmful, in spite of people's best intentions." (An otolaryngologist is also called an ear, nose, and throat doctor, or........

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