Adult Thumb Sucking

Thumb sucking is a common and often anticipated part of life for many infants and toddlers. Without the ability to communicate their needs and wants verbally, young children are forced (and inspired) to find alternate means of self-soothing other than crying. Enter thumb sucking. Sucking one’s thumb is a natural and reflexive behavior that infants and toddlers use to help soothe themselves. In the case of infants, it also helps encourage the motions required to suck on a bottle or sippy cup.

Many, if not almost all, newborns will demonstrate thumb, finger, or toe sucking behaviors. In some cases, this can happen as early as within hours of birth or sooner. Some newborns are shown in ultrasound photos sucking their thumbs while in utero.

As you can see, thumb sucking is quite common among babies, toddlers, and even young (pre-school aged) children. Many kids who suck their thumbs and fingers stop doing so without any form of intervention before they reach school age. Others, who may not be as inclined to quit on their own, generally respond to mild forms of intervention from parents and grandparents.

Adult thumb sucking

There isn’t any specific data that exists indicating the frequency with which thumb sucking continues beyond childhood into the teen and adult years. However, there is anecdotal evidence, and this evidence suggests that there are many adults who suck their thumbs. This number could be as high as one in ten adults. Again, most children who suck their thumbs during infancy and early childhood will stop on their own, but there is a percentage of those children who will continue to do so (generally in private) for decades. Still, for others, thumb sucking may prove to be a habit that lasts throughout their entire lives.

Why some adults suck their thumbs

As with statistics, the understanding of why this happens is also fuzzy. The reason why one person will stop sucking their thumb when another may continue into their golden years is not clearly understood. The reason could be as simple as comfort. Thumb sucking is a self-soothing behavior for young children, and for the adults who continue to suck their thumbs, the habit could also help to reduce anxiety and stress. The act of thumb sucking could help these particular adults to calm down and relax. It is also possible that some of the adults who suck their thumbs experienced trauma of some kind during childhood. During that time (when still a child), they turned to thumb sucking to help soothe and calm themselves down. For these adults, they may turn back to this behavior when a triggering event occurs, or simply when they feel stress. They carry with them the knowledge that thumb sucking helped to calm them at the time and appears to still work now.

For others, thumb sucking may simply have become a habit. Many of us have habits (some involuntary and some voluntary) that have become part of our lives that we can’t seem to shake. For adult thumb suckers, the process may have become an involuntary (or even voluntary) habit that is used to relieve boredom in addition to a reduction in stress and anxiety.

While some adults may use thumb sucking to relieve stress, and for others, it may have become a habit, there are some medical conditions that could be attributed to thumb-sucking as well. There is some evidence (again anecdotal in nature) that indicates some people with a condition called trichotillomania may be more likely to suck their thumbs. This condition is earmarked by symptoms such as an irresistible urge to pull hair out of the body including the scalp, eyebrows and body. It is also characterized by the urge to suck one’s thumb.

Another medical condition which could lead to thumb sucking is age regression. This is a condition in which a person displays behaviors that are more typical of people who are younger than they are. Thumb sucking could be associated with this condition as well.

The Effects of thumb sucking

While a relatively benign habit overall, thumb sucking isn’t without its side effects, particularly where dental health is concerned. Thumb sucking doesn’t have a wide-ranging amount of adverse side effects when compared with other habits such as smoking or drug use. It also doesn’t have that many adverse effects in children who either do not have teeth yet or still have a mouth full of baby teeth. However, once the baby teeth are lost and replaced by permanent, adult teeth, thumb sucking may cause problems with tooth alignment and other oral health problems. It can also cause other medical issues outside of the mouth. Below we briefly examine the potential effects of thumb sucking as it pertains to adults.

Misaligned teeth (dental malocclusion)

For adults, problems with bite alignment and oral health may become progressively worse over time unless they are corrected through an intervention such as braces or by ceasing the thumb-sucking behavior. As noted in the above paragraph, once permanent teeth erupt, thumb sucking can have an impact on the alignment of the teeth, especially the front teeth on both the upper and lower jaw. The impact on tooth alignment as a result of thumb sucking may be even more pronounced in adults who suck their thumb frequently or very vigorously. For these adults, the overbite created when the front teeth stick out over the bottom teeth at an abnormal angle can become much worse. The upper and lower teeth can also begin to slant outward. This condition is not an overbite, but something called an anterior open bite. This means both the lower front teeth and the upper front teeth begin to slant forward in the mouth, creating something of a point at the front of the jaw. In other cases, the incisor teeth may begin to tip inward and upward towards to tongue causing bite issues and challenges with chewing.

Changes to the jaw structure can also occur for adult thumb suckers when someone engages in more vigorous thumb sucking, the cheek muscles flex and release. This process may, over time, work in such a way that alters the jaw shape and causes something called a crossbite, which is another form of tooth misalignment. These changes to the jaw shape can also affect facial appearance and structure.

Changes to the roof of the mouth

Thumb sucking has the potential to cause changes to the hard pallet or “roof” of the mouth. The pressure created by the thumb frequently pushing on or touching the roof of the mount can cause the pallet to indent and become concave (or form a “dent”). The pallet of the mouth may also become more sensitive to touch and sensation, which may cause eating certain foods or drinking beverages at a certain temperature to become uncomfortable or even painful.

Oral (mouth) infections

When someone engages in frequent thumb sucking, the need to suck doesn’t always come at a time when it’s convenient to get to the washroom to make sure hands are clean and sanitary. Without the ability to wash and make sure hands are clean, thumb sucking can introduce dirt and bacteria into the mouth. This can potentially cause an infection in a tooth or the gums or even worse; a systemic infection should the bacteria get into an open sore in the mouth.

Problems with the thumb

Vigorous or long-term thumb sucking can change the shape of the thumb, making it thinner or elongated. The act of frequent sucking can also cause the skin of the thumb to become dry and brittle. This can cause the skin to crack and bleed or become infected. Long term thumb or finger sucking can also cause calluses to develop on the finger that is most commonly used.

Speech related challenges

Long term and frequent thumb sucking can result in dental changes. We have already addressed these in previous paragraphs. These dental changes not only impact tooth alignment and bite but can result in challenges related to speech. These can include lisping or the inability to say or pronounce certain words and sounds clearly.

How to stop adult thumb sucking

There are a variety of different ways to cease thumb sucking. Some adults indicate they have found success by simply making the conscious decision to stop. This is similar to those who make the decision to stop smoking or change their dietary habits without any form of pharmaceutical or medical intervention. Simply put-for these individuals, mind over matter was successful. Unfortunately, this may not work for everyone. This is especially true if the habit is long term or used as a crutch to resolve anxiety and stress during emotionally charged situations.

Some adults also try home remedies or trigger related remedies. If possible, the triggers in the life of the adult that prompt thumb sucking are identified. If the person is aware of the trigger and how it affects them, they may be able to anticipate the introduction of that trigger and reduce the behavior through substituting other stress-relieving techniques. Alternate stress relieving techniques may include deep breathing, meditation, drinking water or a beverage through a straw or utilizing exercise as a distraction.

Other home remedies such as covering your thumb with fabric such as a glove or using a thumb sucking deterrent as you would with a child may work. Others have found success using distraction techniques such as a fidget spinner or a stress ball during times of stress.

Finally, seeking the assistance of a mental health professional may be very beneficial for a person who wants to stop thumb sucking but has been unsuccessful via conventional or “mind over matter” methods. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy may be beneficial as this form of therapy provides individuals with tools and coping mechanisms that can be used in place of non-beneficial coping tools.

If you have experienced some of the negative side effects of adult thumb sucking and are looking for treatment options as related to your mouth and teeth, contact us today. Our practice can provide you with information and details regarding our treatment options and how we may be able to help you alleviate some of the discomfort you are experiencing.

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