What Does Sleep Apnea Have to Do with My Teeth?

Many of our newer patients are surprised to hear us asking about their quality of sleep.  To some, it may seem like sleep problems and dentistry are completely unrelated.

There is a two-way link between dentistry and sleep-disordered breathing issues like sleep apnea.

What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a condition when a person stops breathing for any amount of time while he is sleeping.  The word “apnea” simply means not breathing.  The diagnosis of mild, moderate or severe sleep apnea depends on the number of times a person stops breathing per hour.

When sleep apnea results from a faulty signal in the brain, it is a central sleep apnea.  When a physical closure of the airway causes a person to stop breathing, it is an obstructive sleep apnea.

This blog deals primarily with obstructive sleep apnea.

The Effects of Sleep Apnea on the Teeth

Increased Risk for Nighttime Grinding and/or Clenching

When a person stops breathing, the brain perceives a lack of oxygen very rapidly.  The brain then sends signals to various parts of the body to open the airway and breathe.

One of the ways your body subconsciously opens the airway is by closing the jaws and either tightly clenching the upper and lower teeth together or pressing the lower jaw forward.  This is how sleep apnea causes people to clench or grind their teeth.

The heavy forces placed on teeth by clenching and grinding are higher than normal chewing forces, and they damage the teeth, dental work, gums and jawbone.

All of the following are signs that you may be clenching or grinding your teeth.

  • Cracked teeth
  • Broken dental work, like fillings, crowns and bridges
  • Receding gums
  • Notches in the tooth by the gums
  • Flattening or shortening of the teeth
  • Loss of enamel on the biting surfaces

Many dentists are aware that the cause of these dental problems is teeth clenching and/or grinding.  At Timberlake Dental, Dr. Chowning looks deeper to find the cause of the grinding!

Increased Risk for Acid Erosion

Sleep apnea causes many people to suffer from acid reflux or GERD.  When an obstruction blocks the airway, the lungs create a suction effect when attempting to breathe.  This suction pulls acid up out of the stomach into the esophagus and mouth.

Stomach acid is extremely acidic and corrosive to teeth.  Just as acid can etch and soften glass, it can soften and weaken tooth enamel.  Patients with sleep apnea often show tell-tale signs of acid erosion on their enamel.  This acid does not effect dental work, so fillings appear to be protruding out of a tooth.  They are not actually protruding; they just appear so because the surrounding enamel has eroded away.

The Effects of the Jaws on Sleep Apnea

Many people know that obesity is a risk factor for obstructive sleep apnea.  The extra weight in the face, neck and tongue press on the airway causing a physical obstruction when laying down to sleep.

A lesser-known risk factor is the growth and development of the lower jaw.  Patients with a small lower jaw or severe overbite are at a high risk of sleep apnea because they are very likely to have a small airway.

Dr. Chowning has extensive training in evaluation of the growth and development of the jaws.  They can spot this risk factor very early in life.  When caught early, problems in jaw growth and development can be intercepted and corrected as your child grows.

Do You or a Loved One Have Sleep Apnea?

If you or a loved one have sleep apnea and are concerned about its effect on your teeth, please call today to schedule a consultation with Dr. Chowning. He will explain your specific risk factors for dental problems related to sleep-disordered breathing.

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