Signs of Sleep Apnea that Your Dentist Might Notice

May 26, 2022

Do you snore regularly? Do you wake up frequently during the night? Are you generally sleepy throughout the day? Chances are you might have obstructive sleep apnea. While these sleep-related symptoms are often obvious, other symptoms of sleep apnea may be harder for the average person to recognize. Though it generally takes a dentist to identify them, dental signs of sleep apnea are also key indicators of OSA.

Since the mouth is an important part of the airway, it can both affect and be affected by OSA. In this article, you’ll learn about the following dental signs of sleep apnea:

  • Bruxism
  • Scalloped tongue
  • Inflamed throat
  • Macroglossia
  • Small jaw
  • Receding gums

Follow along to discover how these conditions are connected to OSA and how your dentist can identify whether they might affect you.

Bruxism (Teeth Grinding)

Bruxism, or grinding of the teeth, can be a sign of sleep apnea in the mouth. Teeth grinding generally occurs at night, and individuals who suffer from it are usually unaware that they are doing it. Common symptoms include facial pain early in the morning as well as painful teeth and jaw muscles. 

In some studies, the connection between bruxism and OSA has been identified as a reactive mechanism, with the body grinding its teeth and engaging chewing muscles to attempt to create more airway space during an OSA-related blockage. Others believe that bruxism is triggered due to the body attempting to lubricate the throat when it becomes dry due to OSA. Whatever the reason, bruxism can be treated through nighttime oral appliances or certain lifestyle adjustments, like decreasing stress.

Scalloped Tongue

Tongue scalloping occurs as a result of the tongue constantly being pushed against the teeth, causing indentations to appear. Though tongue scalloping itself is not harmful, it can indicate other health challenges that are linked to OSA. If a patient’s jaw is small enough or their tongue is large enough to press up against the teeth, this probably means that these abnormalities are likely also causing complications to the patient’s nighttime breathing patterns. The body may also subconsciously push the tongue into the teeth to make more room in the airway during sleep.

Fortunately, scalloped tongue and sleep apnea can be remedied through a variety of treatments. Different types of oral appliances and surgeries can treat tongue scalloping and sleep apnea, and certain medications can treat tongue inflammation and scalloping.

Inflamed/Red Throat

Inflammation in the throat can occur for a number of reasons. Some of the culprits include breathing dry air, acid reflux, and even snoring. Each of these causes of sore throat can also be dental signs of sleep apnea. For example, individuals who suffer from sleep apnea often breathe through their mouths, which makes it more likely that their throats will become dry and sore.

Sleep apnea can also cause acid reflux due to changing pressure levels in the chest and throat, and some believe acid reflux can even cause OSA by triggering spasms of the throat muscles. Acid reflux can damage the esophagus and cause the throat to become red and inflamed. 

In addition, snoring, a common symptom of sleep apnea, can also occasionally cause a sore throat because of the vibration it produces in the airway. This condition can be easily treated with an air humidifier, throat lozenges, medication, or, potentially, through sleep apnea treatments, including a CPAP machine or oral device.

Macroglossia (Abnormally Large Tongue)

Macroglossia is a relatively uncommon condition that is generally identified in more children than adults. This condition is usually linked to some other medical condition, including hereditary conditions like Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome or Down syndrome, or acquired conditions such as infections or cancer.

Individuals with this disorder have oversized tongues that can make normal functions like eating, talking, or breathing difficult. An oversized tongue can be a sign of sleep apnea in the mouth because it is likely to make nighttime breathing difficult, which can trigger apneic episodes. Treatments for macroglossia can include medication to reduce tongue swelling, orthodontic treatment to create more space in the mouth, or surgery to reduce tongue size.

Small Jaw

A small jaw can be another dental indicator of sleep apnea. Though jaw size is generally determined through genetics, pacifiers have also been known to cause complications with jaw size and alignment. Whatever the reason, having a small jaw makes it more likely that the patient will have a narrow airway, making it more difficult to get the needed amount of oxygen to pass through.

What’s more, narrow jaws may not provide enough room for the tongue, causing it to fall backward and block the airway during sleep. Because these two complications are common factors of OSA, having a small jaw is a fair indicator of sleep apnea. To remedy this condition, surgery, orthodontics, or certain oral appliances may be recommended.

Receding Gums

Receding gums are a common symptom of gum disease. Though gum diseases like periodontitis and gingivitis are commonly caused by various hygienic factors, they can also be dental signs of sleep apnea. A patient with OSA often will often experience dry mouth during sleep, which can cause irritated, inflamed gums. If this occurs frequently enough, it could lead to gum disease and recession.

In addition, the chronic tiredness that accompanies sleep apnea can weaken the immune system, making it harder to fight disease. Treatments that can help resolve this condition can include deep cleaning, bone regeneration surgery, or gum tissue grafts. However, to resolve the underlying cause of sleep apnea, a doctor may prescribe CPAP, oral devices, or surgery. 

While sleep apnea has a variety of well-known symptoms, it’s still important to look out for these dental indicators as well. If you have struggled or are currently struggling with one of these dental signs of sleep apnea—including bruxism, scalloped tongue, throat inflammation, macroglossia, a small jaw, or receding gums—consult with your doctor to determine what steps you can take to identify and begin treating sleep apnea. 

Want to learn more about treating obstructive sleep apnea? Consider attending one of our events or visit our blog at thevivosinstitute.com/blog to read about additional topics!