Sleep Apnea: When Snoring Is a Health Risk


Sleep apnea is a serious medical condition that affects over 18 million adults in the United States alone, as well as one of every five children who habitually snore. In addition to keeping you and your partner from getting a good night's rest, sleep apnea can cause daytime fatigue, insomnia, and increase risks of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart problems and metabolic syndrome. As your South San Francisco dentist, we are often the first ones to notice the signs of this disorder, because it can be very harmful to oral health.


What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea can work in different ways, depending on the cause. Central sleep apnea occurs when the brain fails to signal the respiratory muscles to keep breathing during sleep. Much more common is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which is caused by the airway becoming physically blocked. Typically, the tongue collapses against the soft palate, which in turn collapses against the throat, sealing off the airway.


Complex sleep apnea combines OSA and central sleep apnea. Whatever the cause of the interrupted breathing, the outcome is the same. Not breathing sets off all the brain’s alarm bells, waking the person up to take a breath. It happens so quickly that most people with sleep apnea never remember waking up, even if they’re waking up hundreds of times in a single night. They still feel the effects of not getting a full night’s sleep, however, through symptoms like exhaustion, morning headaches, and difficulty concentrating.

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

The signs and symptoms of obstructive and central sleep apneas overlap, sometimes making it difficult to determine which type you have. The most common signs and symptoms of obstructive and central sleep apneas include:

  • Loud snoring

  • Episodes in which you stop breathing during sleep — which would be reported by another person

  • Gasping for air during sleep

  • Awakening with a dry mouth

  • Morning headache

  • Difficulty staying asleep (insomnia)

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness (hypersomnia)

  • Difficulty paying attention while awake

  • Irritability



What Does Sleep Apnea Have to Do with Teeth?

In addition to the short-term and long-term effects of sleep deprivation, people with OSA tend to be more vulnerable to developing moderate to severe periodontitis, and they’re also more likely to have trouble with their jaw joints. Studies have shown that the jaw tends to reflexively clench during a sleep apnea episode to try to keep the airway open. All that strain can result in temporomandibular joint disorders (TMD), which have symptoms like pain when chewing, chronic headaches, damage to the teeth, and neck and shoulder pain.

Dental Professionals Can Help

The reason dentists are often the first health providers to recognize the signs of sleep apnea and diagnose it is that dental health effects are a common complication. (Just one of many reasons why regular dental appointments are so important, not just for oral health but overall health.) Treatment for sleep apnea typically involves continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines or nighttime dental devices that push the lower jaw or the tongue forward.


Getting a full and restful night’s sleep is critical if we want to feel great and have the energy we need to go about our days. If you suspect you or someone you love might be missing out on good sleep due to sleep apnea (snoring is a major sign), your next appointment with us could be life-changing. If it's been more than six months since your last check-up and cleaning or if you have concerns about sleep apnea, schedule your next visit today. Call or text us at (650) 871-1400 or schedule your appointment online.

The content on this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of qualified health providers with questions you may have regarding medical conditions.

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