Israel-based researchers Watemberg et al. found that children and adolescents reporting migraine-like headaches who chewed gum regularly reported improved symptoms after kicking the habit.
The researchers found only one previous reference in medical literature that called out gum-chewing as a potential cause of headaches and another study that linked the sweetener aspartame, common in gum, to headaches.
Watemberg et al. suggested that gum’s link to headaches may be less about how many pieces a person chews or how long they chew for each time, but more about the habit of gum-chewing.
Aspartame an unlikely cause
“In our opinion, this habit provokes headaches by imposing mechanical burden on the temporomandibular joint [the jaw] rather than through the sweetener aspartame, whose association with recurrent headaches has not been definitely established.”
The researchers, who work at childcare clinics in Israel, said that the amount of aspartame released in gum was likely to be low since gum tends to lose its flavor after a few minutes.
However, they called on larger, longer-term studies before aspartame, recently declared safe by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), was ruled out.
30 patients, mainly girls with a median age of 16 who suffered from headaches rated the frequency of their gum chewing habit and agreed to stop for one month.
19 out of the 30 patients reported complete resolution of the headaches in a questionnaire. The findings are summarized below:
Group 1 (six children): Up to 1 hour of gum-chewing a day - 100% reported partial or total improvement.
Group 2 (11 children) : 1-3 hours of gum-chewing/day – 91% reported partial or total improvement.
Group 3 (eight children): 3-6 hours of gum-chewing/day – 75% reported partial or total improvement.
Group 4 (five children): More than 6 hours/day – 80% reported partial or total improvement.
20 of the participants were then told to reintroduce the habit after two to four weeks. All reported relapse of the headache within days to a week.
The researchers conceded that the patients were made fully aware the possible association between gum-chewing and headaches, which may have caused bias.
“Nevertheless, the majority of patients reported total or marked improvement upon elimination of the trigger, which may not be the results of self-suggestion,” they said.
Sugar-free gum and dental health
The findings come as a blow to the ailing gum category and could undermine recognized dental health benefits from sugar-free gum-chewing.
Sugar-free chewing gum has a number of dental health benefits to its name approved by EFSA including plaque acid neutralization, reduced oral dryness and maintenance of tooth mineralization.
Pediatric Neurology (2013) In Press
‘The Influence of Excessive Chewing Gum Use on Headache Frequency and Severity Among Adolescents’
Authors: Nathan Watemberg et al.