Health & Medical Dental & Oral

Sleep Apnea and Dental Health: How Are They Connected?

Could there be a connection between sleep apnea and dental health? Professionals at the American Sleep Apnea Association estimate that this affliction affects approximately 22 million Americans. The condition ranges from mild to extreme, with the most severe cases termed obstructive sleep apnea when the individual's air passage is blocked, causing breathing to completely stop then start again during the night. Untreated severe forms of the disorder can contribute to stroke and heart disease. A study conducted at the University of Wisconsin showed individuals with severe forms of the condition died over three times more frequently than healthy individuals over a period of 18 years.

Treating the disorder can transform your health for the better. Since most cases of mild to moderate levels of the condition — an estimated 80 percent — go undiagnosed, what early symptoms, especially those that concern your dental health, clue in medical professionals as to whether you may suffer from the disruptive disorder?

What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a pause in breathing during sleep, occurring up to hundreds of times per night. When breathing stops, the oxygen level in the blood quickly drops, signaling the brain to awake enough to take a deep, gasping breath. For this reason, sufferers never are fully at rest, but constantly in a restless, disturbed state.

When apnea is caused by a physical air pipe blockage, it's called obstructive sleep apnea. In some cases, the fault lies with the brain when it neglects to control breathing muscles during sleep. This type is termed central sleep apnea. Either classification can affect anyone at any age, but overweight males over 40 years old with a history of the condition in their family are at the highest risk of developing the disorder.

The Effect on Your Teeth

A dentist may notice two key signs at a regular examination which could lead to a sleep disorder diagnosis. First, patients with the condition commonly suffer from bruxism, or nocturnal teeth grinding. Grinding the teeth or clenching the jaw may be the brain's subconscious attempt to open the breathing passage further. To identify bruxism, the dentist will look for severely worn enamel on the teeth. In some cases, the enamel has disintegrated enough that nerves deep within the tooth are exposed, leading to extreme tooth sensitivity. The dentist will also check the movement of the individual's jaw, checking for pain or tightness, signs of nocturnal clenching. The top surface of the teeth may be cracked or chipped and some teeth may begin to loosen.

The second sign related to dental health is dry mouth. Individuals with this condition constantly open their mouths to take in more air, causing saliva to evaporate and sore throat symptoms to show up early in the morning. Dentists will ask you about dental problems, including if you suffer from dry mouth, so they may be the first medical professional to recognize the connection to a possible sleep disorder diagnosis.

If the dentist observes evidence of either bruxism or dry mouth and a sore throat, he or she will question you regarding other possible symptoms, including:
  • Headaches in the morning
  • Fatigue and sleepiness during the day
  • Decreased brain function, mood swings and irritability
  • General lack of energy

They may refer you to a sleep specialist for further testing and also outfit you with an oral mouth guard to limit the negative effects of bruxism.

Talk to your dentist if you have concerns about teeth grinding, dry mouth and a possible connection between sleep apnea and dental health.

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