Many people don’t understand the close connection between the structure of the jaw and the proper functioning of the body. When the jaw isn’t properly positioned, it can cause airway problems that lead to snoring and sleep apnea. Poor jaw position can also lead to poor jaw function, including temporomandibular joint disorders (TMJ).
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that these two conditions are closely linked. In fact, about 75% of people with TMJ have sleep disordered breathing (a label that includes both snoring and sleep apnea), and about 50% of sleep apnea sufferers have TMJ.
But what causes the connection between these two conditions? And can they be treated together?
One of the reasons why sleep apnea and TMJ occur together is that they can be caused by some of the same developmental processes. If your jaws don’t fully develop the way they’re supposed to, it can lead to both airway and bite problems. Your airway is shaped in large part by the jaw, so a small jaw leads to a narrow airway that is more likely to collapse. In the same way, small jaws often lead to bite problems. This puts stress on the temporomandibular joint, leading to TMJ.
We can address developmental problems in children with Healthy Start, but we can also address it for adults using the DNA appliance. This appliance not only treats sleep apnea, it can potentially cure it by triggering jaw growth that expands the airway.
Sleep Apnea Contributes to TMJ
But it’s not just development that links the two conditions. As the conditions progress, they can become intertwined. Sleep apnea in particular can lead to or worsen TMJ.
When you have apneas at night, your body tries to keep the airway open as it can. One way it does this is by clenching the jaw to try to better anchor the airway. But repeated clenching of the jaw (bruxism) can damage the jaw joint, leading to TMJ.
Obviously, the longer sleep apnea goes undetected and untreated, the worse this gets. Often, people don’t realize they have sleep apnea until they notice some of the symptoms of TMJ, even though it’s secondary to their sleep apnea.
Treatment of One Can Worsen the Other
Another problem is that sometimes treatment of one condition can worsen the other. Most often, this happens with sleep apnea treatment. Sleep apnea treatment can put the jaw in an unhealthy position, stressing the temporomandibular joint and worsening TMJ. This can occur with oral implant therapy, which moves the jaw forward, or with CPAP, where the mask can push the jaw backward.
TMJ treatment with a bite splint can also worsen sleep apnea, if the chosen jaw position doesn’t also promote a healthy, open airway.
Work with a Dentist Who Treats Both
How can you make sure that you are getting a good diagnosis of the conditions you have and ensure that your treatment of one condition doesn’t worsen the other condition? Work with a dentist who understands and treats both conditions. Dentists often describe this type of work as physiologic dentistry, or dentistry that looks at the physiology of the teeth and jaw. That way, you will know that your dentist is able to help identify both conditions if present, and recommend treatment options that are truly healthy.