Sleep apnea is an incredibly common ailment that impacts millions of people around the world. In fact, researchers estimate that one in every 15 Americans currently has the condition, with the vast majority of these being undiagnosed.
The condition can cause a wide range of issues, from poor cardiovascular health to a higher risk of having a stroke.
What is the link between sleep apnea and dental health, though? We thought we would take a closer look at what the condition is, what causes it, and what can be done to treat it.
What is sleep apnea?
Before we explore the connection between sleep apnea and dental health, it is first important to understand what the condition is. This a sleeping disorder that sees an individual stops and starts breathing multiple times while asleep, which can lead to incredibly serious complications.
In order to be classed as sleep apnea, an individual will need to stop breathing for 10 seconds or more at a time. These breathing issues mean that sufferers are continuously waking up throughout the night, preventing them from getting a restful night’s sleep.
Many people do not notice that they are waking up, instead only finding themselves exhausted and drowsy the next day.
Some of the most common symptoms of sleep apnea include:
- Feelings of fatigue
- Loud snoring
- Waking up with a very dry mouth
- Having a headache in the morning
- Struggling to concentrate throughout the day
- Being more forgetful
- Finding your mood changes regularly
- High blood pressure
- A lower libido
- Finding yourself suddenly waking up with a start
What are the causes of sleep apnea?
There are a wide range of issues that can cause sleep apnea, and the condition is more prevalent in men than it is in women. The condition can impact people of any age, but it occurs more frequently in those over the age of 40.
There are three main types of sleep apnea:
Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)
OSA is the most common form of the condition and impacts around 80% of sleep apnea sufferers in the United States. OSA is where the muscles that support our soft tissue, such as our tongue and palate, relax too much while asleep. This, in turn, narrows the airway, reducing your ability to breathe.
When it comes to sleep apnea and dental health, OSA can be caused by dental malformation as well as a range of other risk factors, including:
- Excess weight, with fat deposits around your airway obstructing your breathing.
- The overall circumference of your neck, which can cause your airway to narrow.
- Enlarged tonsils, which can cause obstruction.
- Having a family history of sleep apnea
- Using alcohol or sedatives, which can cause the muscles in your throat to relax and worsen the sleep apnea obstruction.
- Smoking also increases the risk of developing OSA, with smokers up to three times more likely to have it due to inflammation and increased fluid retention.
- Nasal congestion, either from an allergy or anatomical problem can also make an individual more likely to develop sleep apnea.
- Other medical conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, hormonal disorders, asthma, polycystic ovary syndrome, and Parkinson’s.
Central Sleep Apnea
Central Sleep Apnea is another very common form and is a neurological issue that causes to the brain to fail and not activate your body’s respiratory muscles when you are asleep.
This type of sleep apnea typically occurs when there has been another neurological disorder, such as the development of Parkinson’s or having a stroke.
Using opioid pain medications can also increase the risk of developing Central Sleep Apnea, particularly those which are long acting such as methadone.
Complex Sleep Apnea
The final type of sleep apnea is Complex, which is a combination of both Central and Obstructive. This means that breathing issues will often persist even once individuals have undergone treatment to clear their airway.
Sleep apnea and dental health – what is the connection?
Sleep apnea is most commonly caused by issues with the soft tissue in your mouth. That means one of the first places to visit to seek help should be your dentist. They will be able to explore your mouth and identify the connection between your sleep apnea and dental health. Some of the most tell-tale signs that could indicate you are at risk of developing the condition include
Bruxism is the medical term for when a person grinds their teeth while they are asleep. This is a very common condition, with around 13% of the population thought to have the condition, although many of these remain undiagnosed. Having bruxism can lead to a range of dental issues, including the premature wearing of your teeth, and gum issues such as inflammation and receding.
The condition often occurs as a result of sleep issues. As the muscles in your throat begin to relax, your jaw naturally clamps together to prevent the airway from becoming completely blocked. Changing your sleeping position or wearing a special mouthguard can help to reduce the impact of both bruxism and OSA.
Sleep apnea and dental health are entwined, and many people report having Temporomandibular Joint Disorders. The Temporomandibular Joint helps to connect the lower and upper jaws, and when it becomes inflamed or misaligned, it can cause headaches, ear pain, and a clicking sound when the jaw is moved.
Although the exact link between TMJ and sleep apnea is still ongoing, recent research has found that individuals with sleep apnea are twice as likely to experience TMJ.
Sleep apnea often sees individuals breathing through their mouths more at night. This leads to dryness, which is a major contributor for periodontal disease, gingivitis, and plaque build-up. Saliva helps to wash away bacteria and decay, so a lack of it can be a major risk to your overall dental health.
How can a dentist treat sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea and dental health are entwined, and dentists are now trained and educated in how to treat the condition. This often starts with a recommendation to use Continuous Positive Airway Pressure treatment, as this is a non-invasive option. This is not always enough to treat the condition, though, and some patients will need to undergo further treatment to correct any obstructed airways.
This treatment can include Mandibular Advancement Devices (MAD), which are designed to fit over both your upper and lower teeth, holding the jaw and tongue in a position slightly further forward than normal. This helps to prevent the soft tissue from relaxing too much while asleep and closing your airway.
For individuals with minimal flexibility in their jaw, a dentist might recommend a tongue retainer instead. These devices help to prevent the tongue from falling into the airway while someone is asleep.
Sleep apnea can be a very serious condition and can cause a wide range of issues for both your overall dental and physical health. Speaking with your dentist will allow you to identify if you have the condition and also allow them to create a clear plan to treat it.