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  • By Joanne Summer, MA, CCC-SLP

Freeing the Tongue 80 Years Too Late


Clearly, this old dog doesn't have any problem sticking out his tongue, but that isn't always the case in humans. One of my clients was tongue-tied for more than 80 years; this condition affected his ability to speak properly.

Think of the most important organs in your body.

I imagine you think first of your brain and heart. These organs are incredibly important, as the brain is responsible for cognitive function, as well as planning motor movements. The brain wouldn’t function well without the heart, however. The heart pumps blood to the brain and all the other organs, limbs and cells of the body. These vital organs, but of course, we are leaving out other organs that help us survive.

Did you think of your tongue? When you think of your tongue, you probably think about how it enables us to eat, swallow and speak—extremely important functions. Did you know that it also helps us protect our teeth? After eating, our tongue likely will remove food that gets caught between our teeth and cheeks that otherwise might decay, forming plaque and leading to cavities and other dental problems.

What would happen if your tongue was restricted?

Here's a case in point. Recently, my dentist referred a man who is in his early 80s to me because he was having “difficulty talking with dentures.” The dentist told me that this very active business professional had had a set of dentures made at a dental school; these dentures were ill-fitting and causing him to have difficulty when speaking. In fact, Mr. X’s dentures were causing him so much trouble that he feared he would lose his job. The new set of dentures my dentist made Mr. X resulted in vast improvement, but Mr. X seemed to have difficulty placing his tongue where it belonged to speak properly.

I did my research on improving articulation with dentures, and when I first saw Mr. X, I asked him to read some sentences with many tongue-tip alveolar sounds, such as /t/, /d/, /n/, /l/. To properly produce these sounds, one needs to lift the tip of the tongue to the bumpy ridge behind the top teeth (also known as the alveolar ridge).

As soon as Mr. X began reading the /t/-loaded sentences, I realized what was holding him back: He was tongue-tied! In other words, his frenulum (the fibrous membrane under the tongue that anchors the tongue to the jaw floor) was too short. No wonder he couldn’t properly produce those /t/, /d/, /n/ and /l/ sounds—his tongue was restricted and could not reach the alveolar ridge.

Shortly thereafter, I called my dentist and recommended that Mr. X’s tongue be released. An oral surgeon performed the procedure, and on the following day, Mr. X called to thank me, as he already was beginning to see results. He—and my dentist—were surprised that in all these years none of the countless dental and medical professionals he had seen noticed this.

I’m so excited for Mr. X, who now can not only speak more clearly after this procedure and therapy but can also better perform other activities of daily living we often take for granted, including eating, swallowing, cleaning food from our teeth—and even licking an ice cream cone.

By sharing this story, I hope that other professionals, including dentists, orthodontists, prosthodontists and dental hygienists, will no longer take the tongue for granted by taking a moment to assess their patients’ lingual movements (up and down, in and out, and side to side) to determine if their tongues are restricted. If so, they should refer these patients to a speech-language pathologist trained in orofacial myology for further assessment and possible treatment.


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