If your jaw is improperly positioned, it can put stress on muscles, pinch nerves, and damage joints, leading to a wide range of symptoms that affect your head, neck, back, and even hands. This is what we call temporomandibular joint disorder (abbreviated TMJ or TMD). TMJ can be hard to diagnose and hard to treat, but a specially trained dentist can often succeed where other treatments fail.
Part of the problem is the difficulty with diagnosis. TMJ can manifest with many symptoms, and people often don’t realize these symptoms are related. People may talk to their doctor about headaches, but may not mention jaw pain, popping and clicking in the jaw, or ringing in their ears. Diagnosed with migraine, they may get medication for one symptom, but others persist.
Other times, people may get treatments that can be effective but may provide only short-term release, such as chiropractic treatment. In order to get long-term, comprehensive relief, it’s important to identify the true cause of your symptoms.
Understanding Sleep Apnea
Your jaw supports your airway, so if your jaw is improperly positioned, it may cause your airway to be constricted. Then, when you sleep, your airway can be narrowed or possibly even close. When your airway narrows, it will cause snoring .
If your airway collapses, it cuts off your breathing. In order to restore breathing, your brain must awaken slightly. This cycle of wakening interferes significantly with your ability to sleep. Sleep is vital for metabolic regulation and cognitive health. When sleep is interrupted, you will experience metabolic disruption and psychological or emotional disturbance. Your heart is also affected. When your brain senses the oxygen shortage, it signals your heart to work harder, which strains the heart and leads to high blood pressure.
Untreated sleep apnea is a potentially deadly condition. Treatment will help reduce or eliminate the impact on your health. However, the primary treatment for sleep apnea, CPAP, is uncomfortable and many people have difficulty using it. An effective alternative, oral appliance therapy, can help many people who have been prescribed CPAP but don’t use it or don’t like it.
Connecting TMJ and Sleep Apnea
Because TMJ and sleep apnea are both related to your jaw position, they often overlap. About three-quarters of people with TMJ have some kind of sleep disordered breathing, either snoring or sleep apnea. About half of sleep apnea sufferers have TMJ.
It’s important to be aware of the overlap between conditions and work with a dentist trained in treating both. Otherwise, it’s possible that treating one may aggravate the other, leading to an increase in symptoms and negative consequences. TMJ may be aggravated either by CPAP or by oral appliance therapy for sleep apnea. And if a TMJ appliance is worn at night, it may increase the number of sleep apnea episodes if not properly configured.