The Real Reason It Hurts So Bad When You Bite Your Tongue

It's one of the most universal kinds of pain. You're enjoying your meal, minding your own business, and then suddenly your tongue is shot through with stabbing pain. It's the kind of pain that blocks out everything around you until it starts to clear up. And it's the kind of pain that you couldn't easily reproduce on purpose.

Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan went to Instagram to ask about that exact thing. Why are we able to hurt our tongues so badly on accident, but not when we bite them on purpose? The Indian Express, as it turns out, had an answer for him. They reached out to Dr. Swati Mohan, senior consultant-dermatology at Fortis Escorts Hospital in Faridabad, who explained that our brains stop us from hurting ourselves: "When we bite our tongue intentionally, we are conscious of our threshold of pain. As we start registering the pain, we stop."

So the only way to really hurt your tongue is to bite it unintentionally, but why is that experience so very excruciating? As it turns out, the structures that make our tongues so versatile are also what makes biting them hurt so much.

It's all about nerves

A 2018 paper published through the National Center for Biotechnology Information states that there are at least 8,000 motor units in the tongue. Each of these units work together to make the tongue as flexible and versatile as it is — it's no small thing that this one muscle is a key component in eating, drinking, speaking, and breathing. But those motor units also make the tongue vulnerable. The same paper stated that all 8,000 (or more) units are "highly innervated," meaning they are loaded with nerves and nerve endings, the channels through which our bodies process and announce pain.

With all those nerves in one place, it's no wonder biting our tongues hurt so much. And it is unfortunately easy to do. Healthline points out that not only can we bite ourselves when eating, but also while playing sports, when we're stressed, in our sleep, and when we're hit in the face. With so many opportunities to give ourselves a hard bite, it's probably a good thing the brain stops us from doing it on purpose.