Factors That Contribute to the Development of TMJ and Sleep Apnea

The shape of our jaws is determined by constant pressures among the body’s components. Difficulty breathing through the nose because of restrictive anatomy or allergies can lead to mouth breathing during sleep, which alters the forces that shape the jaw. The result is a jaw that is shifted backward. This contributes to a narrowing of the airway.

In addition to developmental factors, there are many things that can contribute to a rearward position of the jaw, such as orthodontics, tooth wear, and even poorly designed and fitted dental restorations. These can all cause TMJ because of the stress they put on the jaw joint, and contribute to sleep apnea because they tend to narrow the airway.

Sleep Apnea Can Worsen TMJ

Once you have developed sleep apnea, it can contribute to TMJ, causing your condition to worsen.

When your brain senses that your oxygen levels have dropped, it sends signals to multiple systems in the body, such as the heart, which is asked to pump harder and faster to get more oxygen to the brain. The brain also then seeks to open the airway by contacting the jaw muscles, which clench to help stabilize and open the airway. This repeated clenching of the jaw is one of the causes of nighttime bruxism, and it can contribute to jaw joint damage, tooth wear, and other problems.

If You Have Sleep Apnea, Look for TMJ Symptoms

Because most people aren’t familiar with TMJ, they may not know to look out for the symptoms of the disorder. If you have sleep apnea and you have:
  • Headaches, either tension headaches or migraines
  • Jaw pain–jaw soreness on waking is very common for sleep apnea sufferers and should not be ignored
  • Jaw popping or clicking
  • Irregular jaw motion
  • Ear pain, stuffiness in the ears, ringing in the ears, or vertigo
  • Face and neck pain
  • Shoulder and back pain
  • Tooth damage and wear
  • Tingling and numbness
If you have these symptoms, then you need to look for treatment that is sensitive to the interaction between these two conditions.

man asleep in bed with his mouth open

Proper Treatment Considers the Connection

Treatment of TMJ or sleep apnea must take into account the connection between the two conditions if treatment is to be truly successful.

For example, if you are being treated for TMJ with a bite splint worn at night, it’s important to consider how the bite splint repositions your airway. If a bite splint is poorly designed, it could actually restrict the airway further rather than actually helping to keep it open.

And in sleep apnea treatment with an oral appliance, it’s possible to put the jaw in a position that stresses it. When this occurs, the oral appliance will be uncomfortable, and it may potentially cause lasting damage to the temporomandibular joint system. Of course, CPAP and other forms of sleep apnea treatment can also be damaging, so it’s important to make sure you’re getting the best treatment for you.

A dentist who is also trained in the treatment TMJ & sleep apnea can help ensure the best treatment for both conditions. For an appointment with a dentist skilled in both types of treatment, please call (248) 480-0085 for an appointment at the Michigan Center for TMJ & Sleep Wellness.