Sleep Apnea: Symptoms, Risks, & Diagnosis

You may have heard of sleep apnea, but did you know that your dentist can help diagnose and treat this disorder?

Because many people visit their dentist more frequently than their family doctor, the dentist can play a vital role in watching for dental symptoms of sleep apnea.

What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a potentially dangerous condition that can cause shallow breaths, or even temporary pauses in breathing while you sleep. These pauses may last from a few seconds up to a few minutes, and can occur 30 times or more in an hour. After one of these pauses, normal breathing typically resumes with a loud snort or choking sound.

For more information about Sleep Apnea, visit the National Institute of Health website .

Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)

Of the two types of sleep apnea, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common. OSA occurs when your throat muscles “over relax,” causing the airway to collapse, blocking proper airflow, and temporarily preventing you from breathing.

Why is OSA Dangerous?

When breathing is interrupted, your body reacts by increasing your heart rate in order maintain proper oxygen levels. Over time, this may cause other changes to your body and lead to poor breathing and increased carbon dioxide levels. This will also increase your risk of issues like high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.

Risk Factors of Sleep Apnea

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

  • Excess weight
  • Age 60+
  • Sex (males are at increased risk)
  • Small or unusually-shaped airways in the nose, throat, or mouth
  • Family history
  • Alcohol or sedative use
  • Smoking
  • Gender
  • Genetics
  • Lifestyle

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

  • Jaw pain
  • Snoring
  • Waking up feeling tired
  • Frequent nighttime waking
  • Morning headaches
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness

Jaw Pain and Other Dental Symptoms

Jaw pain is a common indication of sleep apnea, and is often caused by a condition known as temporomandibular joint disorders, more commonly known as TMJ or TMD. Recent studies have shown that when the throat begins to relax before an apnea episode, the jaw reflexively clamps down to prevent the airway from being blocked. This places excessive stress on the jaw, mouth, neck and shoulders, and may cause 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 Should I Do?

If you’re experiencing these symptoms, you should reach out to a sleep disorder physician to schedule an appointment. You may be asked to participate in a sleep study or receive a pulse oximeter reading that monitors oxygen levels in your blood. If you’re diagnosed with the disorder, your doctor will help find treatment options that work best for you.

About the Author

Kenneth J. Wolnik, DDS
Kenneth J. Wolnik, DDS, Inc. in Parma, Ohio

The information on this article is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Tooth Wisdom® and Oral Health America do not recommend or endorse any specific dentists, products, procedures, opinions, or other information mentioned. See full Terms & Conditions.

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