This section has been reviewed and approved by the PLWC Editorial
Difficulty chewing can result from pain in the mouth, stiffness or pain
in the jaw muscles, or problems with the teeth. For people who wear
dentures, pain or swelling in the mouth or gums may make it temporarily
impossible to wear dentures for chewing. Difficulty chewing meats,
fruits, and vegetables can make it difficult to eat a nutritious diet.
Difficulty chewing can be a result of physical changes to the mouth, jaw,
or tongue caused by cancer itself, especially oral and oropharyngeal cancers. Difficulty chewing can
also be a side effect of cancer treatment. Potential side effects of
surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy that can cause chewing
- Soreness, pain, or
inflammation in the mouth (mucositis)
- Dry mouth, from radiation
therapy, chemotherapy, or other medications, such as some
antidepressant and pain medications
- Gum disease, tooth
decay, or tooth loss, which are possible long-term side effects of
dry mouth, radiation therapy, or high-dose chemotherapy
- Infections of the mouth,
after radiation therapy or chemotherapy
- Pain and stiffness in
the jaw muscles, either as a possible long-term side effect of
radiation therapy or from stress-related jaw clenching or tooth
- Mouth pain, which is
caused by nerve damage from certain chemotherapy drugs
- Tissue and bone loss in
the jaw, a possible long-term side effect of radiation therapy
- Physical changes to the
mouth, jaw, or tongue, as a result of surgery
Because chewing difficulties interfere with the ability to eat, it is
important that you talk to your doctor about treatment options. The
doctor may refer you to a speech therapist, which is a professional who
specializes in helping patients use the muscles in the mouth and throat.
A speech therapist can teach a person how to chew more easily, especially
if surgery has changed the structure of the mouth or tongue.
A dentist can evaluate tooth or gum pain or denture problems and provide
treatment to help prevent future problems. Patients may be prescribed special
fluoride gels or mouth rinses to help prevent tooth decay or gum disease.
Taking good care of your teeth and mouth with proper brushing and
flossing will also help prevent dental problems.
The doctor or dentist may also prescribe medications to reduce
inflammation and pain. Some pain medications can be used as a mouth rinse
directly before eating. People with mouth infections, such as a fungal
infection like thrush, may be given medication to treat the infection.
Chewing difficulty related to jaw pain and stiffness can be treated with
muscle relaxers, physical therapy (for example,
massage, jaw exercises, moist heat), or in some cases, surgery.
Diet and eating tips for patients with difficulty chewing
Depending on the severity and cause of chewing difficulties, different
suggestions may work better for some patients than for others. Try
different types of foods with the goal of eating a nutritious diet that
has enough protein, vitamins and minerals, and calories.
- Eat soft, smooth foods,
such as yogurt, pudding, and ice cream.
- Mash or blend foods to
make homemade shakes or add blended vegetables or ground meats to
casseroles or soups.
- Moisten dry foods with
broth, sauces, butter, or milk.
- Take sips of water or
other liquids while eating to keep the mouth and food moist.
- Try softer versions of
your favorite fruits or vegetables, like applesauce or pureed
carrots; switch to softer fruits and vegetables, such as bananas or
peas; or consider eating baby food.
- Cut food into small
bites and chew slowly and thoroughly.
- If you are losing
weight, eat smaller, more frequent meals that are high in protein
and calories, such as eggs, milkshakes, casseroles, and nutritional
- Avoid dry, coarse, or
hard foods and foods that need a lot of chewing.
- Meet with a dietitian
for additional advice on eating a balanced diet.