man suffering from sleep apnea

Sleep Apnea and Oral Health – What’s the Connection?

Sleep apnea is often only thought of as a sleep disorder that affects your breathing and physical health. However, this common sleeping problem doesn’t just lead to respiratory issues and diabetes. Sleep apnea affects your oral health, often leading to dental problems. And actually, dental issues may be the culprit of your snoring and sleep apnea, further connecting the two. 

What is Sleep Apnea? 

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder affecting 25 million American adults, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. It occurs when breathing is interrupted during sleep cycles. During these interruptions, oxygen is prevented from reaching the lungs, often causing you to wake up either by gasping for air or with an abrupt loud snore. 

Common symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • Reduced and absent breathing
  • Frequent and loud snoring
  • Gasping for air during sleep
  • Daytime sleepiness and fatigue
  • Decreases in attention and concentration
  • Forgetfulness
  • Dry mouth and headaches upon waking
  • Nocturia (waking up often during the night to urinate)

What Causes Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is caused when the tissues in the airway collapse. This can occur for various reasons, including weak airway muscles, a large tongue, being overweight, or other risk factors.

In most people with sleep apnea, the muscles in the back of the throat relax during sleep. This reduces space for air to pass through, thus causing a lack of oxygen. In addition to the reasons already listed, other risk factors that may affect a person’s chances of developing sleep apnea include:

  • Age – risk increases with age 
  • Sex – men more likely to experience sleep apnea
  • Post-menopausal women – are two to three times more likely to have sleep apnea compared with premenopausal women
  • Nasal or sinus problems 
  • Alcohol and cigarette use
  • Large neck
  • Overbite
  • Teeth grinding
  • TMJ, or a temporomandibular joint disorder

How Sleep Apnea Affects Oral Health

Many who suffer from sleep apnea don’t even realize it. Aside from waking up tired, some of the first signs of sleep apnea are bad breath and dental issues. This is why a dentist is often the earliest diagnostician of sleep disorders. Dental problems associated with sleep apnea include:

Bruxism (teeth grinding) 

Teeth grinding, or bruxism, often goes hand-in-hand with sleep apnea. Dentists will notice tooth wear on surfaces, indicating that patients are grinding their teeth. This is common with sleep apnea because patients might unconsciously grip their jaw and grind their teeth to help counteract the relaxation of the tongue. When you tense your jaw and grind your teeth, the action sends a message to your brain to wake up so you can breathe. Teeth grinding wears down your teeth, leaving them susceptible to decay and cavities. According to The Journal of Oral & Facial Pain and Headache, 31 percent of adults grind their teeth, with at least a quarter of them also suffering from sleep apnea. 

Dry Mouth

People with sleep apnea tend to breathe through their mouths at night. Mouth breathing causes a host of dental concerns, including dry mouth. Dry mouth creates a breeding ground for bacteria. It diminishes your saliva production, which is needed to flush bacteria by washing your teeth, tongue, and gums. Bacteria causes an increase in plaque, leading to more cavities, tooth decay, gum disease, mouth sores, and bad breath. 

TMJ Disorders

The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) connects the lower jaw to the upper jaw. Sleep apnea is prone to causing TMJ disorders as most sufferers clench their jaws. Symptoms of TMJ include jaw pain, head, neck, and shoulder pain, locked jaw, chewing difficulty, and a clicking sound when opening and closing the mouth. 

man getting fitted with bite guard to treat oral health affected by sleep apnea

Treatment for Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is usually diagnosed by a healthcare provider and treated using corrective treatment measures, such as a CPAP machine. A CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine uses a mask or nosepiece with a hose to deliver constant air pressure to help you breathe during sleep. 

If your sleep apnea results from or contributes to dental issues, your dentist can assist in alleviating dental symptoms. Orthodontic treatment may be used to correct teeth misalignment to help in preventing sleep apnea. In addition, your dentist may recommend a dental mouthpiece to manage teeth grinding and clenching as well as oral mouthwashes to combat dry mouth.  

Regardless of the cause of sleep apnea it affects your oral health and it’s important to do all you can to prevent damage. Good oral health is essential to good overall health. If you suspect you suffer from sleep apnea or its side effects, contact your dentist to discuss your concerns and treatment options.