How Can a Dentist Help With Sleep Apnea?

A sleep doctor or clinic can identify and diagnose sleep apnea, and a primary care physician can help you lose weight to minimize sleep apnea symptoms. But one other provider who is uniquely positioned to help alleviate sleep apnea symptoms is none other than your local Lakewood dentist. If you or a loved one struggles with sleep apnea, a dentist can assess the tongue, mouth, and airway, and help determine the root cause. In some cases, it may be the tongue is in the improper resting place. In other cases, it could be that forward head posture has closed the airway over time. Regardless of the reason, a dentist can help with sleep apnea.

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a severe sleep disorder that occurs when your breathing is interrupted during your sleep. The interruptions during rest cause CO2 to build up, damaging and overstimulating your internal organs. It can also cause some severe health issues over time. 

The three common types of sleep apnea include: 

  • Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) is the most common type of sleep apnea. During sleep, the throat muscles relax, which causes an obstruction that impedes the airway. Many people with OSA wake multiple times throughout the night, gasping or choking for air. As many as 15-30% of men and 10-30% of women have OSA.
  • Mixed or Complex Sleep Apnea combines obstructive and Central Sleep Apnea. This is when someone has both a physical obstruction from relaxed muscles and a mental signal disruption. 

What Signs of Sleep Apnea Do Dentists See?

When you visit the dentist, it’s quite common for them to analyze your teeth, gums, and oral health. Since the mouth, tongue, and airway are so closely connected, sleep-disordered breathing issues such as sleep apnea show signs and symptoms in those areas. Here are a few red flags your Lakewood dentist may see that point to an underlying sleep or breathing disorder: 

An underdeveloped jaw

The posture of your oral area (lips together, tongue resting in the upper palate, teeth slightly parted) is primarily responsible for the growth and development of your face and jaw. The tongue is a powerful muscle and should rest against the upper palate (roof of the mouth) and cause the upper jaw to broaden and grow forward in a healthy and esthetically appealing manner. When this does not happen, the midface does not develop properly because of tongue tie and open mouth posture, and the lower jaw is typically trapped behind a deficient upper jaw and midface.


When you sleep, weak airway muscles or poor tongue posture cause open- or closed-mouth snoring. Just like exercises can help tighten the muscles of your body, you can use specific activities for your mouth and throat to help reduce airway obstructions. Myofunctional therapy provides exercises for your throat and tongue. The techniques help you breathe through your nose and reduce the loose skin in your throat that vibrates and causes snoring sounds.

Signs of teeth grinding (bruxism)

There is a connection between bruxism and sleep apnea, although scientists are still trying to determine what that connection is. It’s possible that clenching the jaw is a response to the pauses in breath that happens during sleep.  This is one theory as to why bruxism and sleep-disordered breathing are linked. Regardless, your dentist will see signs of teeth grinding such as cracked teeth, worn down teeth, or frequent fillings falling out. 

Large tonsils and adenoids

Mouth breathing, by nature, causes the mouth to dry out and the tonsils and adenoids to enlarge. When the tonsils are larger than they should be, they partially block the airway, which leads to obstructive sleep apnea and trouble breathing. Over time, the blockage can also lead to changes in the growth of the craniofacial (upper and lower jaws) and can significantly impact health and development.

Periodontal disease (gum disease)

Periodontal diseases develop when your gums become inflamed in the early stages of gingivitis. When periodontal diseases become severe, they can spread to the bone supporting your teeth and cause tooth loss. Gum disease is more common in individuals with sleep apnea, as sleep apnea increases the bacteria in the mouth and leads to plaque buildup.

TMJ disorders

On both sides of your head, in front of your ears, is the temporomandibular joint (the TMJ). Its primary purpose is to ensure your jaw moves smoothly, allowing you to eat, drink, and talk easily. Sometimes, however, this TMJ can become stressed or damaged, which causes irritation and pain – and sometimes a TMJ disorder. 

How Can a Dentist Help With Sleep Apnea?

Thankfully, there are many treatments and procedures that help alleviate sleep apnea and its symptoms, including oral appliances, airway pressure devices (CPAP), myofunctional therapy, and corrective jaw surgery (only if needed). 

If you or a loved one has sleep apnea, the best course of action is to find an airway-focused dentist in Lakewood like us! We will identify your unique situation and provide a plan of action to help you live, breathe, and smile better. Schedule an appointment here, and we can discuss any concerns and answer the questions you may have. 

To learn more about our General Dentistry Services, visit this page here.

About the Author

Dr. Elizabeth Turner is a whole-health, family dentist in Lakewood, CO who provides general, restorative, and cosmetic dental care. She focuses on the mouth-body connection and helps her patients smile confidently, breathe clearer, and live healthier lives. 

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