The Sleep Apnea and TMJ Connection


Understanding the Connection Between Sleep Apnea and TMJ

When you stop to think about it, it’s amazing just how many complex, interconnected systems work together to help the human body function. Our bodies are so complex that we’re still learning about these connections and how they impact and connect different health conditions. One of the connections that has begun to get more attention in the last few years is the one between sleep apnea and TMJ. Although these disorders are very different, they often go hand in hand and have a significant impact on each other. This news isn’t all bad, however, as it opens up new ways of looking at and treating these conditions together. We’ve broken down this connection to help you learn more about it and how your Lakeway dentist can help improve your symptoms.

Sleep apnea and TMJ are very different disorders.

Despite the connection between them, sleep apnea and TMJ are very different disorders. Obstructive sleep apnea is a condition where you stop breathing for a few seconds at a time throughout the night. Usually, this occurs because the muscles in your throat or tongue relax too much, causing them to collapse enough to block your airway. Your brain wakes you up just enough to get you breathing again, disrupting your sleeping patterns and causing symptoms like snoring, fatigue, and lack of concentration, even if you feel like you’ve been sleeping all night. Sleep apnea can be dangerous if it’s left undiagnosed or untreated, as it increases your risk for health conditions like high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke.

On the other hand, TMJ is characterized by an issue with the joint or muscles of your jaw that lead to severe pain in and around the joint. The resulting tension and inflammation can cause a surprising range of symptoms, from frequent headaches and pain in the neck, shoulders, and back to hearing loss. TMJ has a range of potential causes, including habitually clenching or grinding your teeth or having a misaligned bite.

The two disorders have a complex relationship.

Sleep apnea and TMJ have completely different causes and many different symptoms, so what ties them together? The biggest key is in the relationship between the position of your jaw and how open your airway is. When your jaw isn’t held in an ideal position, it can cause your airway to narrow or it can put stress on the joints of your jaw. As a result, nightguards worn for TMJ to protect against clenching or grinding teeth that don’t take into account how open your airway is can worsen your sleep apnea.

Similarly, sleep apnea can spark or worsen TMJ in two major ways. The first is simply that it can cause you to clench or grind your teeth at night, which puts constant pressure on your jaws. The second is that ill-fitting oral appliances used to keep your airway open at night can hold your jaws in a position that puts extra strain on them. In both cases, a preexisting problem with the joint can worsen or become inflamed by this added stress, even if your jaw wasn’t causing you pain before. This is why the two disorders often appear together—in fact, one study found that 52% of participating sleep apnea patients also had TMJ.

The good news is we can make this connection work for us instead of against us! The connection between the position of your jaw and how open your airway is gives you more potential treatments that could help you improve both conditions.

Your dentist can recognize the signs of sleep apnea.

Many people who suffer from disturbed sleep don’t talk to a physician about it for one reason or another. If someone already knows they have TMJ, they may simply chalk sleep apnea symptoms, like frequent headaches, poor sleep, and fatigue. up to their TMJ, especially if they don’t realize that there’s a connection between the two conditions. Thankfully, dentists are trained to recognize signs of sleep apnea, such as a scalloped or oversized tongue, teeth that are worn down from grinding them at night, and a narrow palate. Only sleep specialists can diagnose you with sleep apnea, but Dr. Tomasik can help steer you toward a diagnosis by spotting signs like these. It’s yet another reason why your regular dental evaluations are so important!

Dental treatments can improve sleep apnea and TMJ.

Treating you with the connection between sleep apnea and TMJ in mind can improve both conditions and help you sleep soundly, kicking fatigue and daily pain to the curb. Even if you only have one of these conditions, treating you with this connection in mind may help prevent the other from developing. One of the major ways you can treat your TMJ and sleep apnea is by using a custom-made oral appliance. Dr. Tomasik will find your ideal jaw position, which is where your jaw is in a relaxed position but your airway is as open as possible, and will create an appliance that keeps your jaw in that position while you sleep. These oral appliances can treat mild to moderate sleep apnea without straining your jaw, helping to relieve or prevent TMJ pain!

Dr. Tomasik can also treat your TMJ by addressing issues like a misaligned bite that cause you to hold your jaw in a position that strains it. This includes orthodontic treatments to fix a misaligned jaw as well as replacing or fixing crowns and fillings that may no longer fit in your natural bite. These treatments can help you hold your jaw in an ideal position even during the daytime, which may help open up your airway. Everyone’s case is different, however, so which treatments are right for you and how they can help will be different for everyone. Dr. Tomasik will design a treatment specifically for you so you will be able to gain the best possible results for your jaw.

The connection between sleep apnea and TMJ may sound like bad news at first, but the truth is we can use this connection to our advantage, helping you breathe easier, sleep more soundly, and live pain-free again! If you’d like to learn more about this connection and how your sleep apnea or TMJ could impact you, feel free to call and schedule a consultation with Dr. Tomasik at our Bee Cave dentist office at any time!