Sleep Apnea and Dentistry: Why We Care

Dr. Kenneth J. Wolnik | 11.17.2014

Sleep Apnea and Dentistry: Why We Care

As an older adult, you may have heard the term “sleep apnea” recently, from news stories online or from your family dentist. It’s a dangerous condition, and one that cannot be taken lightly. 


What is Sleep Apnea? The Basics.


What is Sleep Apnea? Sleep apnea is a disorder known for causing pauses in breathing during sleep.


What is OSA? The most common type of sleep apnea, obstructive sleep apnea, is caused by an over relaxation of throat muscles that blocks proper airflow and causes brief moments where you stop breathing. .


Why is Sleep Apnea Dangerous? These brief pauses in breathing force the brain to elevate the heart rate to maintain proper oxygen levels, which leads to several other changes in your body that contribute to poor breathing and increased carbon dioxide levels.  This can lead to more serious, long-term issues such as high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.


Did You Know? Left undiagnosed and untreated, sleep apnea can shorten a person’s life span by as much as 18 years.


Risk Factors and Symptoms


Although sleep apnea can affect anyone, certain factors can increase the risk of developing this disorder:

  • Weight
    • People with more fat around their upper airways (nose, throat and mouth) are at increased risk
  • Age
  • Sleep apnea occurs in adults over the age of 60
  • Males are more likely to suffer from  sleep apnea than females
  • Small or unusually-shaped airways in the nose, throat or mouth
  • Family history
  • Alcohol or sedative use
  • Smoking
  • Gender
  • Genetics
  • Lifestyle


The most common symptoms of sleep apnea include snoring, waking up feeling tired, frequent nighttime waking, morning headaches, difficulty concentrating and excessive daytime sleepiness.


Oral Symptoms of Sleep Apnea


In addition to overall body symptoms, a person with sleep apnea can also have dental symptoms.


The #1 Symptom is Jaw Pain!

Jaw pain is the primary dental sign and is caused by temporomandibular joint disorders, more commonly known as TMJ or TMD. In the past, it was assumed that stress-related night-time teeth grinding most frequently caused TMJ pain, but more recent studies have shown that TMJ is often caused by sleep apnea. When the throat begins to relax before an apnea episode, the jaw’s natural response is to clamp down and try to prevent the tissue from blocking the airway. This puts excessive stress on the jaw, mouth, neck and shoulders, which causes the symptoms of TMJ.


Other dental signs of sleep apnea include:


  • Cracked, broken or missing teeth
  • Excessive teeth grinding or jaw clenching
  • Worn front teeth
  • Pain when chewing
  • Chronic headaches
  • Neck and shoulder pain


What You Can Do


If you notice any of the signs of sleep apnea, or if you experience TMJ-like symptoms, the first step you should take is to see a sleep disorder physician. You will have the opportunity to take part in a home sleep study and/or pulse oximeter reading, which monitors oxygen levels.


However, most Americans see their dentist more frequently than they do their family doctor. Your dentist plays vital role in watching out for signs of potential health problems in his or her patients. By identifying dental symptoms of sleep apnea, dentists can help their patients realize a higher quality of life and help prevent potentially deadly complications that can come from improper diagnosis and treatment of this disorder.


About Dr. Wolnik


Dr. Wolnik received his Doctor of Dental Surgery degree from the Case Western Reserve University School of Dental Medicine in 2002. For over ten years, he and his staff have been committed to providing outstanding oral health care to each and every patient seen in the office, and strive to respectfully provide expert care in all aspects of oral health, including cleanings, fillings, accident reconstruction, and complex esthetic rehabilitation. Located in Parma, Ohio, Kenneth J. Wolnik, DDS,, Inc. is known for exceptional service and community involvement.