When You Sleep — Teeth Edition

Have you ever woken up with your teeth or jaw hurting from simple tightness, not knowing what the cause was? Chances are you might have sleep apnea. The National Sleep Foundation estimates that 18 million Americans have sleep apnea.

So what exactly is sleep apnea? Sleep apnea is a condition that occurs when you stop breathing while sleeping.  Sleep apnea causes breathing interruptions that happen throughout the entire night.  These pauses can last from a few seconds to minutes and may occur 30 or more times per hour.

When you stop breathing in your sleep, your brain can respond in one of two ways; either your mouth opens, causing your saliva to dry up and provide a perfect habitat for a germ infestation — or your subconscious self might decide to open up its’ own airway by removing any obstacles, such as grinding your teeth down to nubs, or biting your tongue or cheek, and potentially causing an infection.  On top of that, according to WebMD, sleep apnea is also linked to a higher risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.

When your mouth is dry and you’re lacking saliva (which your mouth needs in order to fight off bacteria), it can cause an increase of germs, causing potential tooth decay, cavities, and loss of bone density.

The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) notes that sleep apnea may lead to bruxism. Bruxism is the grinding of teeth. This happens when forceful contact between your teeth wears on the enamel and damages the roots, causing sensitivity, and pain and often calling for major dental repairs. These repairs include the need for fillings, crowns, or even potential extractions and implants.

The grinding of teeth can also damage the chewing muscles and cause TMJ. This can affect your facial joint health and even your facial expressions over time.

According to the NSF, treating sleep apnea has the potential to lessen nocturnal teeth grinding. How do you treat it? Many dentists recommend a night guard. However, while they may be cheaper than getting a CPAP machine, they often make the problem worse. Night guards can be considered as another airway blockage to your sleeping, unconscious self. This could potentially cause harder and heavier grinding in order to open up that airway.

(In some cases, such as a dietary deficiency, grinding of teeth can be stopped by a night guard.)

So how do you properly treat sleep apnea? There are multiple different types of oral appliances that exist, which keep the airway open at night so that you can access deep-stage sleep without it being interrupted by grinding, snoring, tossing, and turning, or other breathing difficulties. One type of oral appliance is a mandibular advancement device. This looks like a sports mouth guard but it is used for a completely different reason. An MAD connects to the upper and lower dental arches and it prevents you from being able to fully close your mouth, thus preventing the grinding of teeth.

In heavier cases, a CPAP machine may be necessary. The CPAP – continuous positive airway pressure device – is a mask that fits over the nose and the mouth and blows air into the airway to assist in keeping it open during sleep.

These machines can often get noisy, and might be unsettling to your partner or family members, so depending on the situation, a simple mouth guard might still be your best op