While we have a habit of treating oral health as something distinct from the rest of the body, in reality, our oral health and our overall health are all part of the same whole. The human body is an amazing thing, and its various parts and systems interact in complex and dynamic ways. A particularly interesting example of this is the interaction between sleep issues–and in particular sleep apnea–and oral health. While they may seem disconnected at first glance, sleep apnea and oral health interact in some important ways. If we have or suspect we have sleep apnea, we should take a minute to learn more about the impact it may have on our teeth and gums.
To begin, let’s look at what sleep apnea actually is. Sleep apnea is a condition in which the muscles at the back of the throat and tongue relax during sleep, and as a result, cause the sleeper to stop breathing. While it’s not always easy to detect sleep apnea on a night-to-night basis, there are a number of signs that it may be a problem:
- Loud snoring
- Gasping for air during sleep
- Stopping breathing during sleep–someone else will most likely notice this for you
- Dry mouth upon awakening
- Difficulty sleeping or insomnia
- Signs of poor sleep: sleepiness during the day, difficulty concentrating, irritability, loss of focus, and headaches among other symptoms
If you or someone you know is exhibiting a few of these, sleep apnea may be the issue and a discussion with a health care provider is in order.
With that in mind, let’s turn our collective attention to the causes of sleep apnea. There are no hard and fast rules for what might be the source of sleep apnea; patients of all sizes, shapes, ages, and backgrounds have it. However, research has been able to identify a number of risk factors, including the following:
- Excess weight: the overweight and obese are more prone to sleep apnea
- The girth of the neck: people with thick necks are more likely to show signs of sleep apnea
- Family history: ask your parents and grandparents, but sleep apnea often runs in families
- Alcohol and tobacco use are strongly linked to sleep apnea
- A narrow airway: this can be naturally occurring or the result of swollen tonsils or adenoids, but a narrow airway can cause sleep apnea in some patients
- Nasal congestion from a cold, allergies or similar ailment can cause sleep apnea
If any of these apply to you, and you’re experiencing signs of sleep apnea, it again may be time for a conversation with your healthcare provider. They can suggest a number of tests or even a sleep study to determine what’s going on and the best course of treatment.
This brings us to our final question: how does sleep apnea affect oral health? That’s a complex issue, as every patient manifests it a bit differently, but in general, there are a few negative impacts sleep apnea can have on our teeth and gums. As we pointed out above, sleep apnea may cause dry mouth, which in turn deprives the teeth of the remineralization that saliva provides. By blocking the replacement of vital minerals from the saliva, the teeth grow weaker and thus more prone to damage, cavities, or worse. If left untreated, these can result in permanent damage or tooth loss. Similarly, sleep apnea is also linked to gingivitis, which is the first step towards more serious periodontal diseases. These may also lead to permanent damage and lost teeth. Finally, sleep apnea is often associated with bruxism or teeth grinding, which can quickly result in permanent wear and damage to the teeth.
This all sounds serious because it is. If left untreated any of these conditions can do serious and lasting damage to the teeth and gums. The good news however is that sleep apnea is for the most part treatable. It’s a common medical condition and nothing to be ashamed of. If you suspect you may be dealing with sleep apnea, talk to your doctor and dentist today and they’ll suggest courses of action for analysis and treatment. By facing the issue head-on, you’ll provide yourself with both better sleep and the best smile possible.