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"Mastication," "masticatory system," "muscles of mastication" - what do they mean, exactly? And why are they important?

What is the Mastication System?

"Mastication," "masticatory system," "muscles of mastication" - what do they mean, exactly? And why are they important?

Ever heard of the masticatory system? If you haven’t, that’s okay—it’s not something you learn at school. The chances are a little higher when you take a pre-med course or go to medical school, but for many of us who don’t, it’s somewhat of an enigma. And it’s not like most people equate “mastication” with “chewing” off the bat. So what is the masticatory system, exactly? And what are the muscles of mastication?

In a nutshell, the masticatory system is the collection of muscles, tissues, and organs that control how you chew. According to Davies and Gray, it’s made of three things:

  • Teeth
  • Periodontium
  • Articulatory system

Of course, it would be easy to leave it at that. But things are rarely as simple as that. Fortunately, we’re here to break down what you need to know about mastication, the masticatory system, and the muscles of mastication.

Why should we care about mastication, anyway?

It’s a little more challenging to understand what the masticatory system is without knowing why it’s essential. According to Soboļeva et al., knowing how the lower jawbone moves “greatly influenced procedures in clinical dentistry.” Particularly in the field of prosthodontics. Prosthodontists consider your chewing action when they design restorations to ensure you don’t have a hard time wearing them.

But what is mastication, anyway? Soboļeva et al describe it as “the action of breaking down [food] preparatory to deglutition.” While it might sound like something complex, take out the big words, and it’s relatively straightforward. Humans generally don’t—and shouldn’t—swallow their food whole. You could choke if the morsel is big enough. And those large chunks are a pain to digest. (If you’ve ever pooped out something you ate in relatively mint condition, chances are you didn’t chew it enough.)

But chewing isn’t some magic process you do out of the blue. There’s a whole network that works to get this going. And they do it as efficiently as possible.

The masticatory system up close

We know that the masticatory system is made of three parts. But of course, each of these components comprises of smaller elements. 

  • Your teeth are composed of four other tissues. The enamel, which covers the crown of your teeth; the cementum, which includes the roots; the dentin, the inner porous layer of your teeth; and the dental pulp, which is the network of nerves and blood vessels that serves as the core of your teeth.
  • Your periodontium—which you might know as the gums and such—is made up of three parts: the gingivae, which are your gums; the bone (or more precisely, the jawbone); and the periodontal membrane, which cushions the tooth and tooth socket. 
  • Your articulatory system, which is made up of the body parts which you use to speak. These include those muscles of mastication, your occlusion (or how your teeth contact each other), and your temporomandibular joint (TMJ).  

As with all body systems, each part of the masticatory system plays an important role. Your teeth are the tools that process the food into smaller pieces. The periodontium, then, holds the teeth in place, so they keep stable as you chew. And your articulatory system is responsible for making the chewing movement in the first place—your TMJ is what makes the move possible, the muscles are what control the action, and your occlusion is what grinds the food.

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