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Scalloped Tongue: What It Is and How to Treat It

8 min read
by Dylan Hao |

 

If you’ve been side-glancing at your tongue lately and noticing it looks a little unusual, look closer. 

Is the pink tissue on the edges wavy or rippled? That could be a sign that you have a scalloped tongue.

This condition isn’t usually worrisome by itself. However, whatever is causing it needs to be treated before it leads to more serious complications. 

Scalloped tongues are typically warning signs that there’s something else under the surface that could damage your dental health, or it could be a symptom of a medical condition.

In this blog, we’ll explain what scalloped tongue means, what causes it, and how you can treat yours.

What is a Scalloped Tongue?

The term “scallop” is used to define any design that has a wavy or rippled edge. You see it in seafood, of course, referring to the popular mollusk that lives at the bottom of the ocean and has a matching top and bottom shell. The design of this shell’s edge is wavy, thus giving us the name of any material with a “scalloped” shape.

You’ve likely heard of scalloped fabric, but a scalloped tongue?

Understanding the Term “Scalloped Tongue”

No, it’s not a biological fashion statement.

Your tongue’s edges are naturally straight, following a slight curve that encloses the tissue and creates the organ. When those natural edges change their nature and become wavy or rippled, it’s called scalloping.

These ridges are slight at first, but then they become prominent — and permanent. They’re usually located where your tongue touches your teeth near the back.

These marks typically come from one of these two main sources:

  • You’re biting on your tongue frequently.
  • You’re pressing your tongue into your teeth so often that it begins to look like them.

Potential Complications From Tongue Scalloping

In general, this shape change isn’t going to cause you to do too much more than bite your tongue a little more often (ouch). But there’s a reason your tongue’s shape morphed, and that underlying condition must be addressed.

You don’t have to rush to the doctor at the first sign of scalloping. Make an appointment to discuss your concerns.

In the meantime, pay attention to your body and write down any symptoms that seem out of the ordinary. Share this list with your healthcare provider at your visit, as it may help them determine what’s causing the issue.

Risk Factors

Anyone of any age can have a scalloped tongue, although certain habits, conditions, and behaviors put you more at risk. We’ll discuss the medical causes in the next section and potential treatments for each.

Two common reasons people end up with a scalloped tongue are dehydration and smoking.

If you’re not drinking enough water, this often causes atrophy of the muscles and swelling of your organs, including the tongue. 

Smokers have a double whammy here — this dangerous habit is not only linked with dehydration, but it also can lead to periodontal disease and gum infection, all of which are often seen with scalloping.

The fix for these risk factors is both easy and challenging: drink plenty of water and quit smoking.

If you can’t do this on your own, work with an expert to develop a tobacco cessation plan. Your doctor may prescribe medications to help you quit and can offer tips to make the process a little smoother.

What Causes Scalloped Tongues?

The way your teeth bite together is called the occlusion. This pattern is full of unique grooves running from each side of your mouth that only you have. 

When your teeth, particularly the molars and premolars, continually rub against the tongue, it creates an irritated buildup similar to a callous. Eventually, these ridges may extend to the front of your tongue.

The question isn’t, “What’s causing these funny shapes on my tongue?” Those are created from the irritation we just mentioned. 

Instead, you need to know why you’re biting so hard on your tongue or why your tongue is swelling. 

Dehydration

Do you think dehydration isn’t an issue for you? Before you skip this section, consider this fact: according to statistics, about 75% of people in America are chronically dehydrated, and many of them don’t realize it.

That means 3 out of 4 people are walking around with a major scalloped tongue risk factor.

Dehydration causes your body to swell. When your tongue enlarges, it pushes against your teeth. Over time, chronic dehydration and tongue swelling create scalloping. 

The fix for this is to ensure you’re drinking enough fluids.

Keep in mind that adding tea, coffee, alcohol, or soda to the list of your beverages can count against your fluid intake. Many of these drinks are diuretics, meaning they cause you to urinate more often. Certain medications, such as blood pressure medicine, have diuretic side effects as well.

Stress and Anxiety

Another thing many of us have in common since the pandemic is increased stress and anxiety. Statistics show a jump of over 25% in these mental health diagnoses since COVID-19. So, it’s not surprising for dentists to see a marked rise in scalloped tongue cases alongside this change.

Ongoing stress and anxiety affect your body in mental and physical ways that take you on what amounts to a roller coaster ride. The hormones produced by your brain spike, causing you to go on high alert — your brain wakes up, your muscles tighten, and your teeth clench. You’re ready for danger! 

But this usually happens when you’re sleeping, and there isn’t any enemy to fight. So, your jaw clenching and teeth grinding stay in motion until the pain eventually moves you out of your deep sleep.

You might not notice it, but you’ll feel tired the next day. These same reactions cause you to bite or push your tongue against your teeth, leading to scalloped edges.

The only way to solve these behaviors is to figure out what’s causing your stress and anxiety and handle those issues. However, you can reduce the effects on your teeth, tongue, and jaw muscles by wearing a custom-made night guard from professionals like our experts at JS Dental Lab

These oral appliances slide over your arch, preventing your upper and lower teeth from touching. When they can’t connect, they can’t get enough traction to grind or clench, and your tongue and other mouth parts are safe from those actions.

Sleep Disorders

The category of sleep disorders encompasses bruxism but also includes a more dangerous condition, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). OSA happens when the muscles in the back of your throat are too relaxed, creating a disrupted breathing pattern.

Patients with OSA usually have symptoms like loud snoring and daytime fatigue. Obesity can be a factor in sleep apnea, but not all apnea patients are overweight.

Obstructive sleep apnea can cause you to push your tongue against your teeth subconsciously to get the airways opened up, resulting in scalloped edges. If you think you have sleep apnea, talk to your healthcare provider as soon as possible.

They will develop a treatment plan for you that may include a special splint similar to a night guard or a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine that helps you breathe at night.

Temporomandibular Joint Disorders (TMDs)

Your TMJ is the hinge that connects your jaw and skull. This delicate little joint is responsible for opening and closing your mouth and moving it from side to side. When it becomes damaged or misaligned for long periods, it becomes a condition called a temporomandibular disorder (TMD).

Scalloped tongues are commonly seen with TMDs. The joint becomes stuck, requiring more pressure on your tongue for it to sit in its natural position and move around.

Treatment options for TMJ disorders vary depending on the severity and cause of the condition. In many cases, TMJ stems from ongoing bruxism.

If you are just beginning to notice pain in the joint, popping or clicking when you open your mouth, or other symptoms of a TMJ, a night guard may help the problem resolve quickly.

You may need to see a specialist if your TMJ symptoms don’t go away on their own within a few weeks. 

Other Less-Common Causes

A scalloped tongue is almost always attributed to one of the above underlying conditions. But it’s also possible to have this problem if you lack the proper nutrients in your body, such as:

  • Vitamin B
  • Riboflavin
  • Iron
  • Niacin

Not having these nutrients can affect your oral health directly and is linked to scalloping on the sides of the tongue. 

Additionally, certain congenital disabilities or genetic conditions like Down Syndrome, macroglossia, or Crenated tongue are characterized by an enlarged tongue. Hypothyroidism (reduced hormones produced by the thyroid gland) or amyloidosis (build-up of proteins) are health conditions that may also contribute to the scalloped tongue.

Treatments for each of these causes will vary. For example, hypothyroidism is usually managed with a thyroid hormone medication. Vitamin deficiencies are diagnosed with blood tests and often corrected with a supplement or dietary change.

Can You Treat Scalloped Tongue At Home?

Some causes of a scalloped tongue are minimized with home remedies, while others require the help of a trained professional. If you’re not sure what’s causing your rippled edges, talk to your doctor before you ignore the symptoms.

However, if you know you’re a bruxer and your grinding and teeth clenching are the likely culprits, invest in a well-made, durable night guard. (See Occlusal Dental Guards: Everything You Need to Know.) 

You can also work on your water intake to prevent dehydration. Healthy men need 13 cups of water, and healthy women require 9 cups (1 cup=8 ounces). Depending on your health, you may need more or less. If you’re physically active or live in a warm climate, increase those numbers by at least one more cup.

If your blood tests show a nutritional deficiency, that may be treatable with a diet change and at-home vitamins or other supplements. However, if you’re on medicine or have any health condition diagnosis, work with your doctor to be sure anything you do won’t have any adverse effects.

Finally, adjusting your lifestyle habits to include more stress-relieving activities can help reduce the bruxing and guide your tongue to its natural placement.

When Should You See the Doctor for Scalloped Tongue?

Those rounded edges may not be harmful on their own, but they can be a sign of more serious conditions. So, even though you can treat it at home with certain steps, you should never ignore it.

Any tongue swelling that causes breathing problems needs to be addressed immediately. Head to the emergency room or call an ambulance.

Changes to your tongue may be a sign of oral cancer. Call your doctor or dentist if you notice:

  • Severe or unexplained tongue pain that doesn’t go away after a day or two
  • Red or white patches on your tongue that aren’t removed with brushing
  • Ongoing pain or itching in the mouth
  • Bumps, hard sores, or lumps on the tongue

It’s also a good idea to seek medical advice as soon as possible if you think you may have signs of sleep apnea, a TMD, amyloidosis, or hypothyroidism. 

You may be referred to a specialist, but that’s okay! It means you’re one step closer to a solution.

There are many treatment options today to correct most of these conditions early. The key is to know if it’s a dentistry, orthodontic, or specialist issue. Your healthcare physician can help you determine the root cause of your wavy or swollen tongue.

Conclusion

That ripply, wavy tongue is a warning sign of an underlying medical condition. Something is going on in your body, and if you pay attention to those warnings early, you may be able to fix the issue quickly.

One of the most common underlying causes of a scalloped appearance is bruxism. 

If your clenching and grinding behaviors are leading to waves on the side of your tongue, head to JS Dental Lab today to order your custom night guard!

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