The Path from TMJ to Sleep Apnea

Your tongue does more than taste. One of the strongest and most flexible muscles in our bodies, we also use it to chew, talk, swallow, and kiss. But a lesser-known role of our tongues is as a jaw pillow. Your tongue normally lies just behind your upper teeth. In its proper position, your tongue supports your jaw and your upper dental arch.

If you have a misaligned bite, as you would with TMJ disorder, it could affect where your tongue rests in your mouth. If your tongue can’t rest in the correct position because of a narrow mouth or overbite, it can impact your breathing. With these conditions, your tongue might not have enough space, and it will be pushed too far back into your mouth to do its job properly.

How Your Tongue Could Result in TMJ

It begins in childhood. If a child can’t breathe through their nose, usually because of allergies, they’ll breathe through their mouth instead. The mouth-breathing habit causes the child’s tongue to drop to allow air into the lungs. In this position, the tongue can no longer act as the child’s dental arch support. Over time, this condition can change the shape of the child’s developing upper jaw. An underdeveloped jaw can lead to a constricted dental arch resulting in TMJ issues.

Your Tongue and Sleep Apnea

Your tongue can significantly affect your inability to breathe while you sleep. In fact, it’s one of the main culprits that cause an obstruction in those with obstructive sleep apnea. You experience a pause in breathing because your tongue falls to the back of your throat, sagging enough to partially or completely block your airway. This is a large reason why TMJ and sleep apnea are often connected and people with sleep apnea also have TMJ and vice versa. 

The Path from Sleep Apnea to TMJ

In the case of the tongue, TMJ is often the first condition to appear. However, sleep apnea can cause TMJ too. Your obstructive sleep apnea could be due to other soft tissues in your airway, such as your palette, collapsing. You likely don’t notice this happening, but when your brain realizes you’re not breathing, it’ll push your jaw forward in an attempt to create enough room for air to pass. When this happens, you’re at risk of developing TMJ disorder because of the consistent misplacement of your jaw. Your jaw muscles will become inflamed from working too hard; they’ll swell and push your jaw joint out of place. 

TMJ and Sleep Apnea Intensify One Another

Not only can TMJ disorder cause sleep apnea and sleep apnea cause TMJ disorder, but once you have both, they worsen each other as long as you don’t have treatment. 

Does it sound odd that lack of sleep worsens sleep apnea? Well, when you experience sleep deprivation, you’ll have a lower minimum oxygen saturation level making your apnea episodes worse. TMJ often causes Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, increasing sleep deprivation. 

Likewise, the extra stress on your body from sleep apnea causes you to clench and grind your teeth. This only makes your jaw muscles sorer and pushes your joint further out of alignment. 

You may have TMJ and sleep apnea if you have symptoms you can’t explain, like a sore jaw, headaches, ear noises, extreme fatigue, and memory and mood problems. Treating both of these conditions is your path back to a happy, healthy life. 

Treat your TMJ and Resolve your Sleep Problems

Untreated sleep problems like TMJ and sleep apnea can have a negative impact on your performance in everyday activities, such as work, school, or sports. Of more concern are the safety issues sleep deprivation can cause such as accidents and car crashes.

Trained in neuromuscular (TMJ) dentistry, Dr. Nancy Nehawandian of Top Down Dental in San Jose/Los Gatos can help you, by diagnosing and providing treatment options for your airway-related TMJ and sleep apnea problems. We make use of the CS 9300 – a revolutionary imaging tool that allows us to provide our patients with more accurate diagnoses, with more comfort and less radiation – to help us diagnose TMJ. By looking into TMJ jaw alignment issues, and treating your snoring or sleep apnea, you’ll start getting the sleep that is critical to your health and well-being.