Dental Sleep Apnea: How Sleep Disorders Affect Your Patients’ Teeth

Sleep apnea, insomnia, and other sleep disorders are common in the US. Millions of people deal with the effects of these disorders each day.

Most people understand the strong correlation between sleep and health, but there is also a strong relationship between sleep and dental health. Even though most sleep-related problems are diagnosed outside of the dentist’s office, many of these problems are linked to oral health.

When a patient presents with unexplained dental issues, do you consider the patient’s sleeping habits? Let’s take a look at dental sleep apnea and other common sleep disorders.

Dental Sleep Apnea and Other Types of Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea affects adults and children and causes a cessation of breathing while sleeping. This disorder affects a person’s well being and can contribute to hypertension, heart disease, memory problems, and more.

Sleep apnea lessens the quality of sleep and results in daytime sleepiness. This can affect a person’s work and personal life and put them at risk for car accidents.

Three types of sleep apnea:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea is a blockage of the airway due to a genetic issue
  • Central sleep apnea is the brain’s failure to send proper signals to muscles for breathing
  • Mixed sleep apnea is a combination of obstructive and central sleep apnea

Many with obstructive sleep apnea find relief with a dental appliance or anti-snore mouthpiece they can wear during the night. If the tongue obstructs the airway, a tongue-retaining device often helps the problem.

If the problem involves the incorrect positioning of the jaw, a dental device for the mouth or one that fits around the head may benefit the patient. These external devices resemble mouth guards and patients wear them only at night.

Patients with severe sleep apnea conditions may benefit from surgery.

Signs and Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

Although patients may be aware that they have problems sleeping, family members are often the first to notice a loved one’s sleep apnea symptoms. Common symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • Gasping or choking during the night
  • Loud snoring
  • Morning headaches
  • Frequent urination during the night
  • Memory and concentration problems
  • Waking up with a dry mouth or a sore throat

Individuals with sleep apnea often wake up throughout the night and fail to get a good night’s sleep on a regular basis. This prevents them from feeling refreshed, and they may struggle to stay awake during the day.

Encouraging Self Help

People with sleep apnea may reduce the frequency of sleep apnea episodes by doing the following:

Maintain a Healthy Weight

Many people who suffer from sleep apnea are overweight or obese. Excess weight around the neck or abdomen can hamper breathing and compress the airway.

Losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight can help or even cure sleep apnea. In severe cases, weight loss surgery may be an option.

Eliminate Tobacco, Alcohol, and Sedatives

Smoking, drinking alcohol, and taking sedatives depress breathing and can make sleep apnea worse. Anything that depresses breathing is dangerous.

Combining sedatives and alcohol can be fatal for anyone but especially for someone with sleep apnea.

Sleeping on Your Side

People with sleep apnea should sleep on their side, if possible. This can help open the throat for breathing and may limit the effects of sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea sufferers who require breathing assistance may not be able to sleep on their side.


Teeth grinding or jaw clenching, also known as bruxism, is a common problem. Sleep disorders, drug abuse, an abnormal bite, missing teeth, or stress can cause bruxism.

Occasional bruxism isn’t serious. But people who grind their teeth during the night on a regular basis can severely damage their teeth. Symptoms of bruxism include:

  • Flat tips on the teeth
  • Tooth enamel loss
  • Teeth sensitivity
  • Indentations in the tongue
  • Sore jaw in the morning
  • Headaches
  • Earaches

Dental work to realign teeth, mouth guards, and medications can help treat this problem. When standard methods for treating bruxism fail, behavioral therapy may help some patients.

Sleep Insomnia

Insomnia is a common problem that most people have experienced at one time or another. Short-term insomnia occurs occasionally, while long-term insomnia occurs frequently.

When people can’t sleep during the night, they often take comfort in eating. This can affect their weight and dental health.

Although sleeping pills can help those with short-term insomnia, they are ineffective for long-term insomnia and often make it worse. Lifestyle changes and lowering stress levels are often the best solution for those with chronic insomnia.

Long-term insomnia is a serious problem that should be addressed. Health risks associated with insomnia include:

  • Damage to the immune system
  • Poor judgment
  • Memory problems
  • Poor reaction time
  • Problems with hand-eye coordination

Nocturnal Eating Syndrome (NES)

Nocturnal eating syndrome is a serious eating disorder that causes a person to eat late at night. Those with NES wake up during the night with an overwhelming urge to eat.

A person with this condition may try to resist eating, but the urge may be uncontrollable. They are fully awake but may not be able to sleep again until they eat.

This can lead to tooth decay, especially if they are not practicing good oral health. Other health risks associated with this condition include:

  • Type 2 Diabetes
  • Weight gain
  • Hypertension
  • Depression

Sleep-Related Eating Disorder (SRED)

Sleep-related eating disorder involves eating during the night while only partially awake. When this occurs, a person unknowingly eats large portions of food during the night.

People with this condition may not remember eating during the night, or they may recall only bits and pieces of what they did. Just like NES, individuals with SRED are also at risk for tooth decay and other serious health problems.

Sleep and Dental Health

A good night’s sleep is important for all aspects of health, including emotional and dental health. If a patient has some unexplained dental problems, consider their sleeping habits as a possible reason.

Dental sleep apnea and many other sleep conditions can contribute to dental problems in some patients.

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