Health & Fit: Reality star had jaw surgery from sucking thumb for 9 years. Is this common?

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Bravo reality star Brielle Biermann has revealed that she underwent double jaw surgery last month — not to improve appearances but to repair an overbite and resolve other problems she attributed to her sucking her thumb until she was about 9 years old.

  Reality star had jaw surgery from sucking thumb for 9 years. Is this common? © Provided by TODAY

Biermann said her TMJ and other dental issues were so serious that she struggled to bite into things like onions or pizza.

“I had to use my tongue to help me chew and almost choked every time I ate,” the “Don’t Be Tardy” star shared on Instagram. “That lisp some of y’all complained about? Thank the overbite for that as well. I was so scared... I was completely dreading the surgery, fearing the worst of the worst.”

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Thumb-sucking and dental health

Biermann said she’s recovering and dreaming of when she can actually enjoy pizza. But her experience caused some to wonder — can thumb-sucking create so many problems?

“The answer is yes, absolutely,” Dr. John Girotto, section chief for plastic surgery at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, told TODAY Parents. “It’s sucking your thumb for an extended period of time or using a pacifier for an extended period of time that can lead to what we call an anterior open bite.

“That means your front teeth get pushed forward and up, and your lower teeth get pushed forward and down,” continued Girotto, who did not treat Biermann. “So there’s a gap where your front teeth cannot come together.”

While thumb-sucking and pacifier use are common, Dr. Jeffrey Cooper, an assistant clinical professor of orthodontics at Rutgers School of Dental Medicine, said it's common for children to face more problems if they use these self-soothing techniques for longer periods of time.

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“The issue is intensity and duration,” Cooper told TODAY Parents. “My understanding and 40 years of experience tell me that it’s age 5 that you would like to see them discontinue the habit because of the negative consequences.”

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Dr. Mary Hayes, a spokesperson for the American Dental Association, noted that a bone problem likely also contributed to the severity of Biermann’s overbite.

“She had 9 millimeters of an overjet — well, that’s skeletal,” Hayes told TODAY. “The thumb did not help that situation, but that was more than what you would get with a thumb.”

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Thumb-sucking can cause crooked teeth, an overbite or a crossbite, a situation where the top jaw doesn’t grow as wide as the bottom teeth. In addition to causing visual misalignments, these differences can result in real problems with speaking and eating. As people develop unusual ways of chewing to ease their discomfort, they can develop arthritis in the temporomandibular joint (TMJ).

“Folks will chew in abnormal patterns to compensate,” Girotto said. “That puts inappropriate loads on your joints and you can have degradation and arthritis in the future.”

Orthodontic work after children lose most of their baby teeth can help correct these problems. Cooper recommends that at around age 7 or 8, children visit an orthodontist for an evaluation. Hayes said regular care from a pediatric dentist also can help identify problems at an early age.

Dental experts recommend that parents try to stop children from sucking their thumbs or using a pacifier for too long. Hayes suggested that parents start talking about thumb-sucking when children are between 2 and 4 years old.

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“You can do a soft sell with your child to make them aware of the fact that they’re thumb-sucking. One of the things that’s part of the habit is there’s no self-awareness,” Hayes said. “I will ask a child, ‘Do you think you’re always going to suck your thumb?’”

Parents also can try talking to their children about whether their heroes, such as Iron Man or Elsa, would suck their thumbs, Hayes said.

“You’re trying to model somebody that’s important to them so they understand that sucking the thumb ... is not necessary,” Hayes explained.

For children who persist, Cooper encourages parents to put either socks or pillow cases on their children’s hands to dissuade them from sucking their thumbs. There are devices that can be inserted into the mouth to stop thumb-sucking but they are often painful, Cooper said. Other behavioral interventions also can help.

“There are exercises that even the orthodontist or a speech pathologist or myofunctional therapist can give to children to work with their parents on,” Cooper said.

Related: “They used to say, the old adage was, ‘you lose one tooth with every pregnancy,’" one dentist said.

Treating problems from thumb-sucking

Orthodontic treatment can reverse some problems caused by prolonged thumb- and pacifier-sucking.

“They might need to do something that’s called a palate expander, where literally the upper jaw is widened appropriately so that it would correspond to the normal developing lower jaw,” Cooper said. “If the teeth themselves are crooked ... then some form of conventional braces or some sort of orthopedic orthodontic devices might be necessary.”

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Treating bad bites, crooked teeth and other dental problems in growing children can lead to greater success.

“It’s much tougher to move or do any kind of palatal expansion (in adults),” Girotto said. “They need a surgeon.”

Hayes said many people focus on overbites, crossbites or crooked teeth because of how they look, but fixing them truly bolsters quality of life. People can eat, breathe, speak and sleep much better after treatment in many cases.

“We forget sometimes about the fact that malocclusions, or bad bites, are really functional. I’ve known several people as adults that have had to finally have surgery because they couldn’t bite into a sandwich,” she said. “It’s important for parents to bring to a dentist’s attention that they have concerns about their child sucking.”

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Related: Biermann, the daughter of former "Real Housewives of Atlanta" star Kim Zolciak-Biermann, got criticized for a photo she posted.

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