Links Between your Teeth, your Mouth, Sleep Apnea and your Dentist

Dentists saving patients lives.

Struggling with snoring and sleeplessness? Call your dentist. Snoring and sleep disturbances are often signs of obstructive sleep apnea, and your oral health could be to blame.

“A lot of patients are surprised that I ask about their sleep,” says Blair Bittner Toohey, DDS, a dentist in Palm Desert who specializes in sleep apnea . But “a dentist is often the earliest diagnostician of sleep disorders.”

The National Sleep Foundation estimates that 40 million Americans have sleep apnea. The condition causes repeated breathing interruptions throughout the night; the pauses can last from a few seconds to minutes and may occur 30 or more times 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.

The first sign of sleep apnea is often tooth grinding (also called bruxism). Dentists look for worn tooth surfaces, a sign that a patient grinds his or her teeth. Grinding can cause tooth wear and breakage as well as inflamed and receding gums. A spike in cavities can also be a sign of grinding because the force damages teeth, making them susceptible to cavity-causing bacteria.

At night while sleeping, “When you tense your jaw and grind your teeth, it sends a message to your brain to wake up so you can take a breath,” Cortes explains. A mouthguard does not fix the problem.

Grinding is just one oral health sign of sleep apnea. A small jaw, tongue with scalloped edges, or redness in the throat (caused by snoring a lot, which is another symptom of sleep apnea) are also signs.

Gasping for breath causes people to wake up repeatedly, which diminishes sleep quality and causes fatigue. Sleep apnea is linked to a higher risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.

When a dentist thinks someone has sleep apnea, he or she will often recommend a sleep test.