If you have sleep apnea, you know the pain of poor sleep. Groggy and disoriented, it’s challenging to make it through your day, only to wrestle again with sleep-disordered breathing at night. If you happen to suffer from both sleep apnea and teeth grinding, you also know the pain of a sore jaw and sensitive teeth. Understanding the link between these two conditions can actually help improve your overall treatment approach though. Here’s what you should know.

Understanding sleep apnea and teeth grinding

Sleep apnea affects an estimated 25 million people in the U.S., but that’s just the diagnosed cases. Some doctors estimate that the incidence might be much higher, with as many as 85% of sufferers going undiagnosed.

On the other side of the coin, approximately 33% of all adults and children suffer from teeth grinding and jaw clenching (also known as bruxism).

Put these two conditions together, and you have the perfect storm of terrible sleep.

Nearly 25% of people who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea also grind their teeth at night, with men more affected (women are more likely to suffer from awake bruxism). Sleep apnea and teeth grinding may begin separate from each other, or they may develop at the same time, with one worsening the other.

How can I test for sleep apnea and teeth grinding?

It’s important to know the signs and symptoms of each condition in order to get a proper diagnosis. As we’ll discuss below, a dentist can be one of your best partners in this as they can spot common signs of both in the mouth. Before you visit the dentist, pay attention to the following symptoms.

Waking up exhausted is the primary marker of sleep apnea, but other symptoms you might experience include:

  • Daytime fatigue and excessive sleepiness
  • Snoring
  • Fogginess and difficulty concentrating
  • Noticeable cessation of breath followed by a choking intake of air during sleep
  • Dry mouth or sore throat upon awakening
  • Morning headache
  • Loss of sexual drive
  • Nighttime sweating unrelated to another condition (e.g., menopause)
  • High blood pressure

Obesity is a primary risk factor for a sleep apnea, as are gender (men are more affected than women) and high blood pressure.

Teeth grinding comes in two forms: sleep bruxism that occurs and night and awake bruxism that happens during the day. Unlike sleep apnea, teeth grinding is not influenced by your BMI.

Instead, major risk factors for bruxism include:

  • Stress and anxiety: Suffered equally by men and women, the time of day stress is felt can influence whether a person has sleep bruxism or awake bruxism
  • Medications: Medications designed to affect the central nervous system may prompt tooth grinding, as this is the area that is stimulated when bruxism occurs
  • Chronic pain: Many chronic pain sufferers unconsciously grind their teeth in response to pain, something that may become a habit
  • Poor bite alignment: This cause affects children with bruxism most often

People who suffer from bruxism also experience poor sleep and may wake with an aching jaw. Sometimes the jaw is swollen and red, and, just like sleep apnea, the sleeper may suffer from migraines or a morning headache.

Getting a diagnosis

For both conditions, a sleeper’s partner is typically the first to notice symptoms. They may notice that the sleeper stops breathing before gasping awake, or they might hear the grinding of teeth at night.

Another person who often makes the first connection between these conditions is your dentist. A sleep apnea dentist is aware of the relationship of teeth grinding and sleep apnea and may ask about it if they notice uneven wear patterns on teeth during your regular exam.

Even a dentist without specific training or understanding around sleep apnea knows that uneven tooth wear indicates the potential of bruxism and can make recommendations. Teeth sensitivity is also a primary indicator of bruxism and can lead to questions about sleep apnea.

A formal diagnosis of sleep apnea requires a trip to the sleep clinic in most cases (although there are at-home tests as well). The sleeper is hooked to leads and monitors that measure the following things:

  • Brain waves with an electroencephalogram (EEG)
  • Chin and eye movement that signals sleep stages with an electrooculogram (EOG)
  • Heart rate and rhythm with an electrocardiogram (EKG)
  • Respiration
  • Oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood
  • Leg movement

The sleep clinician will also measure the number of times a sleeper stops breathing and how long the pause lasts. Known as the apnea-hypopnea index (AHI), this measure indicates the severity of the sleep apnea in order to design an appropriate treatment approach.

How to treat sleep apnea and teeth grinding

Fortunately, bruxism and sleep apnea share some treatment options that can help you get a better night’s rest. For both conditions, treating stress and anxiety offers a first step to peaceful sleep. One way to do this is through exercise, something that can also help with a primary risk factor for sleep apnea (obesity).

An ounce of sleep apnea and teeth grinding prevention is truly worth a pound of cure! For both conditions, losing weight through exercise, avoiding alcohol before bed, and choosing the best sleeping position can all help to treat both sleep apnea and bruxism.

Your dentist can also create a custom-made sleep apnea mouthguard for you.

A sleep apnea mouthguard (also referred to as a sleep apnea night guard) serves a dual purpose for those who suffer from sleep apnea and teeth grinding. Not only does the mouthguard hold the jaw slightly forward and move the tongue to the side, keeping the airway open, it also prevents further damage from teeth grinding.

While a CPAP machine is recommended for people with severe sleep apnea, it cannot stop a person from grinding their teeth at night – only a sleep apnea mouth guard can help with that.

AZ Dentist has extensive experience helping patients who suffer from both sleep apnea and teeth grinding. We can monitor changes in your mouth to help you diagnose these conditions and get help. When you are ready to get a good night’s sleep, get in touch!