The link between dental health and sleep apnea

The link between dental health and sleep apnea

The next time you are lying back in the dentist’s chair submitting to their poking and prodding, cavities are not the only thing they are looking for.  You would never guess but your dentist is also looking for signs of sleep apnea and they may be one of the first health professionals to suspect it.


Obstructive Sleep apnea is one of the more underdiagnosed and undertreated conditions among Americans.  Many people may be suffering from various symptoms having no idea that the root of the problem is due to poor sleep quality caused by sleep apnea. The National Sleep Foundation estimates that 18 million Americans have sleep apnea.  This condition causes repeated breathing interruptions throughout the night – pauses can last from a few seconds to minutes and may occur 30 times or more per hour.  These pauses happen because the muscles in the back of the throat are flaccid, the tongue is too large, or the jaw is too small, causing airway obstructions.

With the prevalence of sleep apnea in the public, many dentists have begun to question their patients about their sleep habits.  The reason is because a person’s dental health can be a telltale sign of this condition.  One of the first signs of sleep apnea is often tooth grinding called bruxism.  Dentists look for teeth showing signs of wear such as worn tooth surfaces, a sign a patient is grinding their teeth. Grinding can cause tooth wear and breakage as well as inflamed and receding gums.  Another sign is an increase in cavities which can also indicate grinding since the force damages teeth, making them susceptible to cavity-causing bacteria.  Detection of erosion of tooth enamel can be a result of a dry mouth from snoring, also indicating possible sleep apnea. 

The association between teeth grinding at night and sleep apnea is that while sleeping, when a person tenses their jaw and grinds their teeth, it sends a message to their brain to wake up so you can take a breath.

Dentists can also tell if a person snores at night indicating possible sleep apnea.  Signs of snoring they look for are a tongue with scalloped edges or redness in the throat which is usually caused by a lot of snoring. 

If a dentist suspects a patient has sleep apnea, they will usually recommend a sleep study.  Dentists are not able to diagnose sleep apnea as only a medical doctor can make an official diagnosis, but dentists can make a referral to a patient’s physician for further evaluation.

If your dentist brings up their concern that you may have sleep apnea, here are three questions to ask them:

·      Should I wear a night guard?  To help fix grinding of teeth while asleep, wearing a ngiht guard is a good solution. Night guards can be purchased over-the-counter but these types of guards are usually not recommended and could make the situation worse.  The best solution is to have your dentist custom-make a night guard that fits your mouth and that can reduce not only night grinding but also cavities, headaches, and jaw pain along with helping sleep apnea. Night guards can also help reposition the jaw and tongue to improve air flow. 

·      Does periodontal disease a sign of sleep apnea?  It depends.  If there is a lot of gum recession and decay along with signs of grinding teeth during the night, this could be a sign of possible sleep apnea.

·      What are signs I might have sleep apnea? One of the most common signs of sleep apnea is snoring. You may not realize you snore unless your bedmate is complaining of it.  Other symptoms can include the following:

·      Excessive daytime drowsiness

·      Waking up with a dry mouth or sore throat

·      Morning headaches

·      Irritability and impaired mental or emotional functioning

·      Insomnia

·      Excessive snoring, choking, or gasping during sleep