How Your Tongue Can Reveal Risk of Sleep Apnea

Woman yawning with faded background

Getting a good night’s sleep often comes with challenges when you have sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is the most commonly occurring type of sleep apnea, and it often occurs as a result of the throat muscles relaxing and blocking the airways during sleep. While this condition is predetermined by how the muscles in the back of the throat affect sleep, one lesser-known observance for sleep apnea is how the tongue’s size, shape, and volume affect the airways. Depending on where it sits in the mouth, the tongue can be a huge risk factor in the development and severity of a person’s sleep apnea.

How Tongue Posture Impacts Sleep

The tongue, throat, and sleep often correlate with one another due to the proximity to one another and how the air pathways respond when these conditions malfunction in some form. Snoring, waking up gasping, and excessive drowsiness throughout the day are all just symptoms of this lifelong condition that require constant management to provide healthier forms of sleep for patients. However, the tongue has a more intricate connection than previously conceived.

Articles from Clinical Medicine & Research, the tongue has been believed to be part of the cause for the lack of airway circulation. Poor tongue placement can lead to sleep quality concerns that can be traced back to infancy. There is a strong correlation that the tongue’s placement correlates to the formation of the maxilla, sinus cavities, nasal cavities, and palate in the mouth. Other studies reference the tongue’s volume related to obstructive sleep apnea and state that tongues with larger volumes have stronger correlations to lower O2 saturation during sleep. Included in these aspects, tongue movement restrictions, abnormal formations of oral structures, restricted airways due to collapsed throat muscles can also contribute to various oral health problems, including:

  • Excessive Saliva: Excessive saliva can often contribute to the restricted airways due to the position of the tongue and its relation to the mouth and throat.
  • Enlarged Tonsils: When obstructed airways form continuously, enlarged tonsils can develop as a side effect, leading the tonsils to a higher risk of infection.
  • Malocclusion: Overbites, underbites, and crossbites can develop as a result of long-term obstructive sleep apnea.
  • Open Mouth Posture: Also known as mouth breathing, open mouth posture can leave the mouth more vulnerable to the development of harmful bacteria and the teeth and gums that lead to cavities and tooth decay.
  • Tongue Thrusts: Tongue thrusting, or the habit of pushing the tongue forward between the upper and lower front teeth, can cause malocclusion to occur, which contributes to the development of obstructive sleep apnea.

Because of the direct relation to how the mouth is formed and how the tongue’s volume impacts breathing, people with sleep problems with more prominent tongues could develop obstructive sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is often one of the most undiagnosed conditions and can also be the source for other health problems, such as overbites, cavities, and TMJ disorder. For dentists and orthodontists, various treatments can be presented to help treat obstructive sleep apnea and other related dental conditions.

How Orthodontists Treat OSD

An obstructive sleep disorder can be screened by dentists and orthodontists in cooperation with primary care physicians and sleep specialists and can provide various treatments to help reduce the symptoms of this condition. Orthodontists can specialize in providing these various treatments:

  • Oral Appliance Therapy: oral appliance therapy, including the use of rapid palate expanders, aligners, and mandibular splints, can be worn during sleep to help open up the airway paths and improve breathing capabilities.
  • Continuous Positive Airway Pressure: The CPAP machine, when both diagnosed and treated by orthodontists and sleep medicine specialists, can help reduce OSD symptoms significantly.

Orthodontists can help manage the growth and development of the facial muscles and jaws. With managing sleep apnea, treatments are available to help patients get the proper sleep they need to have a healthier, more fulfilling life.

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