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Mastication: Definition & Muscles

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Mastication is the medical term for chewing. Every time you eat, you undergo the mastication process. Learn more about what chewing actually does to your food and which muscles are involved in the process - it's the first step in digestion, so why wouldn't you want to know more about it!

What is Mastication?

Mastication simply means chewing or grinding up food with your teeth, something you do every day. When you take a bite of food, it gets positioned between your teeth by the cheek and tongue. The purpose of chewing your food, in addition to making sure you don't choke, is to increase the surface area of your food so that your salivary enzymes can start to break it down.

Chewing is actually the first step of digestion. For example, as you chew on a cracker, it will gradually become softer, mushier, and warmer as your saliva begins to break down the carbohydrates. Once you swallow this new blob of food, called a bolus, it enters your esophagus and heads towards the stomach. Chewing is a critical step of digestion, but is often overlooked when reviewing the process.

In cases where a human or animal cannot chew for themselves, a process called premastication may take place. In this situation, an adult will chew the food for an infant or child and then pass the bolus to them to consume. Some other animals chew their food multiple times through a process of chewing, swallowing, regurgitating, and chewing again. This allows them to break down as much of the food as possible before digestion continues.

Which Muscles Help Mastication?

There are four primary muscles involved in moving the jaw to allow for proper mastication. Three of those muscles are known as the muscles of mastication, or the musculi masticatorii. They control adduction, or closing, of the jaw. The fourth muscle, the lateral pterygoid, is responsible for abduction, or opening, of the jaw. All four of the muscles help with lateral or side-to-side movements. There are additional muscles near the hyoid that also help open the jaw.

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