Sleep Apnea and Teeth Grinding: How Your Sleep Affects Your Oral Health

Do you grind your teeth at night? It may be more than a sign of stress – or spending too much time on Twitter.

What many people don’t realize is that there’s a strong link between teeth grinding (bruxism) and sleep apnea. There may be some physical reactions caused by sleep apnea that cause your jaw to tighten during the night. In some cases, managing your sleep apnea is the only way to protect your teeth and oral health.

Here’s what you need to know about sleep apnea and teeth grinding.

Why Bruxism Destroys Your Oral Health

Bruxism is a condition where you grind or clench your teeth unconsciously. You may do it while awake or when you’re asleep. These are called awake and sleep bruxism, respectively.

If you have bruxism, then you know it’s comfortable. Your teeth hurt. You wake up with a tight jaw. Many people also see an increase in headaches when they grind their teeth. But you also need to treat it.

Clenching and grinding your teeth can:

  • Wear down or damage your teeth
  • Cause jaw pain
  • Result in gum recession
  • Damage your tongue, cheeks, and lips

If it goes untreated, you can destroy the enamel on your teeth and cause your teeth to chip or crack. Cracks, chips, and loss of enamel lead to higher risks of tooth decay. Severely decayed teeth may fall out or need removal.

Losing a permanent tooth is terrible for your oral health in general. Tooth loss can cause other teeth to shift, and it can also cause damage to your jawbone.

Your teeth are rooted in your jaw, and when you chew, it stimulates the bone. If you lose teeth, then your jawbone begins to degrade – and quickly. You can experience the most bone loss during the first eight weeks after you lose a tooth.

What’s the Relationship Between Sleep Apnea and Teeth Grinding?

If you grind your teeth with any amount of regularity, your dentist will bring it up at a future appointment. 

In an attempt to help, your dentist will look for the underlying cause of your teeth grinding. They start by looking for issues like a misaligned jaw or teeth, stress, or medications. More and more, they also consider the potential for sleep apnea.

Your dentist may also dig farther to ask you about snoring, daytime fatigue, and trouble sleeping. If you experience sleep bruxism and these symptoms, you might have undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).

There is a link between OSA and bruxism. A quarter of people with OSA grind their teeth. However, the underlying cause of the relationship is unclear.

One theory lies in the stress caused by OSA. When you wake up from apnea, stress floods your body. Your respiratory and heart rates jump, and you have stress hormones. Stress can cause increased muscle activity, which can cause you to clench your jaw and grind your teeth.

A second theory includes upper airway collapse. Whether you have OSA, partial obstructions, or just severe snoring, your upper airway’s tissues collapse. The instability that follows may cause your brain to react by tightening the jaw muscles, which stiffen your throat and prevent the total collapse of your airway. Tighter jaw muscles cause grinding.

These Groups Are More Likely to Have Sleep Apnea and Bruxism

Not everyone who has sleep apnea will have bruxism and vice versa. However, you’re more likely to struggle with both if you fall into one of these groups:

  • Women (petite women in particular)
  • Children with ADHD
  • Children or adults who weren’t breastfed
  • People with anxiety
  • People with a long neck

These are the groups most likely to struggle with a combination diagnosis. However, OSA has other risk factors, including weight, blood pressure, and loud snoring.

Treating Sleep Apnea to Treat Bruxism

If your dentist believes that your bruxism may be related to sleep apnea, they will send you to your general physician, who can further assess you and send you to a sleep specialist.

Patients believed to have some form of sleep apnea go through a series of sleep studies – either at home or within a hospital or specialist facility. If you do have OSA, then you may need treatment. And when your bruxism is the product of OSA, the sleep apnea treatment should prevent the stress or tension that results in bruxism.

Some doctors may not recommend treatment for mild sleep apnea. If you have moderate to severe OSA, however, you will likely be assessed for a continuous positive airway pressure device (CPAP).

You may also consider a new mattress that offers elevation, which helps your body cope with the symptoms. You can ask your doctor or a sleep specialist for a guide for buying a mattress that is OSA-friendly.

In addition to your sleep apnea treatment, you may also need some extra help to protect your teeth, particularly if your teeth are already damaged. Your doctor may send you back to the dentist to fit you for a dental guard to prevent grinding in the meantime.

In the case that your bruxism is severe, you may also try options like:

  • Prescription muscle relaxants
  • Anti-anxiety medication
  • Behavioral therapy
  • Biofeedback procedures
  • Botox

These treatments are necessary because once you damage your teeth, they can’t regenerate themselves. Continued grinding could result in the need to remove the most affected teeth, particularly if they suffer from severe tooth decay.

Protect Your Oral Health by Treating Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea and teeth grinding often occur together. Several theories potentially outline the relationship, but researchers still believe the exact link is unclear.

If your sleep apnea contributes to your sleep bruxism, the first step is to treat your sleep apnea. A doctor or sleep specialist can help diagnose your or adjust your current treatment if necessary. However, you may still need temporary help protecting your teeth, usually with a nightguard.

Did you find this article helpful? Check out the rest of our marketplace blog for more useful articles about dental health and running a dental business.