Patients who have a TMJ disorder generally report chronic facial soreness or having problems opening or closing their mouths. There are several reasons why the jaw joint might have become injured, but in some cases the issue can be from an unexpected source: a sleep disorder. The fact is that TMJ and sleep apnea are often linked in some way, and understanding this link is crucial for any dentist that is aiming for effective solutions to both problems.
How Sleep Apnea Can Be Connected to a TMJ Disorder?
Over 10 million people suffer from some form of TMJ disorder according to estimates by the National Institutes of Health. Research indicates that about 43% of people with TMJ disorders also have sleep problems. The reason for this lies in what happens during a sleep apnea episode.
Commonly, sleep apnea occurs when the airway collapses or is blocked in some way, leading to a pause in breathing. When this happens, the body automatically pushes the lower jaw forward in an attempt to open up the airway. Sleep apnea episodes can happen multiple times throughout the night, with there sometimes being 20 to 30 occurring every hour. As such, the lower jaw will constantly be moving back and forth throughout the night. This puts considerable stress on the jaw joints and can eventually lead to a TMJ disorder.
Even in cases where sleep apnea doesn’t directly cause jaw pain, it can still make it worse. A lack of quality sleep impairs the body’s ability to heal, which means the jaw joints won’t have a chance to properly recover from the damage they’re suffering. As a result, if sleep apnea continues to go untreated, jaw pain is likely to grow more severe.
How Can Sleep Apnea and TMJ Disorders Be Treated?
It’s possible to treat sleep apnea and a TMJ disorder simultaneously with a custom-made oral appliance. This device resembles a mouthguard and is worn at night to keep the lower jaw in a position where the airway will remain open. This ensures that the patient able to breathe properly throughout the night while also reducing strain on the jaw joint. In addition to providing an oral appliance, dentists can also recommend potential home treatments that can reduce the symptoms of sleep apnea and TMJ disorders, such as changing sleeping positions or performing certain exercises on a regular basis to reduce stress or tension in the jaw area.
Separately, sleep problems and jaw pain can take their toll on a patient’s everyday life. If there’s reason to suspect that a patient is suffering from both at the same time, steps should be taken right away to diagnose each condition so that an effective treatment can be devised.
About the Author
Dr. Kent Smith is the President of the American Sleep Breathing Academy and a member of the Advisory Committee of the Australasian Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine. He has been practicing in the DFW area for over 35 years now, and he has only grown more passionate about treating sleep apnea and improving the quality of life for his patients. He has hosted a number of seminars to help dentists learn as much as possible about sleep dentistry, such as the Retreat, which is a two day weekend course that includes 15 hours of lecture and one hour of hands-on instruction. If you would like to attend a session, visit our website to learn more or call (972) 255-3712.