Why Do I Push Toothpicks In My Gums?
Why Do I Push Toothpicks In My Gums?

Why Do I Push Toothpicks In My Gums?

As it turns out, there are a lot of us that create self-inflicting pain to gums. So I wanted to understand why do we do it.

“Right now, I’m idly sticking a toothpick between two of my molars, really jamming it in there, so it squeezes against the gums and the flesh between the teeth. It hurts, but it’s also quite pleasurable. I know I’m not alone in this either – other people have said they feel the same way”. One forum user wrote.

It is not so much of creating sharp pain anywhere on the gums but specifically the Gingival margin tissue around our teeth.

If you would like to further explore people’s discussion on this habit here is a link.

Someone who self inflicts pain to his gums, understands the desire to do it. You may also push sharp objects under your fingernails.

Another user wrote: “I really can’t remember when I started. I was probably eight years old or so, but I started biting my nails and using it to prod endlessly in between my teeth. It’s such a weird pain. It’s so hard to describe. I go as far as that nail can go and rip it out as fast as I can to feel that gum pain until I’ve destroyed the nail. Sometimes I leave the nail in my tooth overnight. Wow, I’m weird, but I’m glad I’m not alone”.

There is a known mental disorder known as Dermatilomania or a Skin picking disorder. It is considered an obsessive-compulsive disorder that causes one to pick at their skin. For such a person, it relieves anxiety and stress. I do not believe this is the case here, despite some claims to the contrary.

If this explanation is not enough for you, keep reading.

Pain As An Actor

There are several types of pain we can feel. Here is an article that goes into further detail. I will focus only on the one relevant to us.

  • Nociceptive
  • Neuropathic
  • Psychogenic
  • Acute
  • Chronic

The pain we are causing falls under the Nociceptive pain. It causes damage to body tissues such as injury, physical pressure, or inflammation. This type of pain can be achingsharp, or throbbing. It can be Somatic. Meaning it is in the arms, legs, muscles, and superficial areas of your body. Or it can be Visceral. Meaning it is present in the organs. Nociceptive pain can be constant or short-lived.

In our case, it is from External Nociceptors (pain receptors) located in the surface tissue (skin). Nociceptors trigger by either chemicalthermal, or mechanical environmental stimulation.

Mechanical Nociceptors respond to pressure or mechanical deformation. They also react to cuts that break the skin surface. The reaction to the stimulus is processed as pain by the cortex, the same as chemical and thermal responses.

It is why you feel a sharp pain when you put pressure on your gums or under your fingernails.

We enjoy the pressure on gums or under fingernails because they produce this pain and not pressure sensation by itself. The pressure is just a means to an end. The end being the sharp stinging pain.

Why We Do It?

It is related to stress. When you were exposed to a stressful situation at one period in your life, you caused yourself pain intentionally to deter your mind away from what was happening in your surroundings and was causing you stress. In your case you deliberatley caused self inflicting pain to your gums.

In time this became a reinforced behavior that you keep repeating when you need to calm down. It means that you induce pain to alleviate feelings of stress.

It is not the same type of pain as one would get when accidentally hitting his leg at the side of the table.

As it turns out, it’s not the pain we induce that we like. It is the removal of pain. We don’t see it because it’s so subtle. Once we induce the stabbing pain in our gums or under our fingernails, it hurts and stings, but once we slowly remove the object causing pain, we get relief.

It is the part that we are pursuing. Not the end result of no pain, but the process of diminishing pain once the pain-producing element is slowly removed.

Pain is fundamentally unpleasant, a feature that protects the organism by promoting motivation and learning. Relief of aversive states, including pain, is rewarding. The removal of pain and the reward from the relief of pain are part of brain reward circuitry. 

“It’s a pressure-induced pain that if it’s just right (not too little or not too much), I feel good. In a while, I need to intensify it because my gums get used to it. It seems like an addiction, doesn’t it?”

Biology Behind It

One of the pain and pleasure correlation theories suggests that increased pain experience decreases pleasure and vice e versa.

Pleasure and pain signaling is on the same neural pathway. The reason for this is not known completely, but the best guess is that it evolved as an evolutionary optimization.

A chance to get a substantial food meal is worth getting a little pain, wouldn’t you agree? It is what the reward system in the brain is all about. The possibility of a large meal is interpreted as a substantial potential pleasure. It is how motivation works, after all.

The reward circuitry represents a vital component for pain experience and modulation. There are three major elements of the reward circuit for pain suffering:

One study found that the brain dopamine system is highly active while we experience pain. This response is dependant on how a person experiences pain and how does pain make them feel.

There are two categories of people, where one inclines more toward this behavior than the o.

Suppose a person considers pain as the cause of emotional distress and fear, more dopamine releases in the brain, in part known as Nucleus Accumbens. It is the area that is also heavily afflicted by drug addiction.

It seems that in some parts of the Basal Ganglia, dopamine is involved in the assessment of pain itself. Simultaneously, in other areas, such as the Nucleus Accumbens and the Ventral Tegmental Area, it is related to pain’s emotional experience.

Stress As The Catalyst

We talk about stress as the single reason for this behavior, but what is stress from a biological perspective?

It is an organism’s response to a perceived threat in its environment. A stressor can be Psychological or Physiological. Stress is the body activating the Fight or Flight response.

Cortisol is released that prepares the body for the Fight or Flight situation by upregulating and downregulating bodily systems that will aid you in either eventuality. It puts the body in overdrive, so you have the best chances of survival.

While this was useful if you were face to face with a Lion, it is not so helpful if you have a deadline at work for some tasks that you have to do. 


The brain is a complex system of interconnected parts. Not one part is solely responsible for any specific brain activity and behavior.

There are many studies and theories out there that are trying to pinpoint how this system of pain and pleasure works. It is still widely uncertain. I did, however, try to explain how this system works based on a lot of online papers and based on other people’s claims as to why they do this, myself included. I tried to be as unbiased and objective as possible.

It is my take on the whole situation. I would be glad of some comments.

Until next time

Article Writen by Joe Average

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