Modern dentistry is moving toward a more functional, “whole health” model that focuses on the connection between your mouth and your entire body.
Dentists are often the first to recognize signs of diabetes or oral cancer and refer patients to their doctors. More recently, dental professionals are examining patients’ mouths for signs of airway obstruction.
Breath is life, a poet once wrote, and breathing obstruction can cause serious health issues. However, it is often not recognized or is misidentified.
What is Obstructed Breathing?
Obstructed breathing can be not only a total blockage in the airway, such as in sleep apnea, but can also be a narrowing of the breathing passages that inhibits airflow, which is sometimes seen in snoring or restless sleep.
When breathing is impaired, you may not be getting sufficient oxygen to your brain and tissues while you sleep, or your body may be making compensations to open the airway at night that leave you exhausted in the morning. Some experts describe the feeling of impaired breathing as if you’re sucking air through a straw.
Common medical causes for impaired breathing include asthma, infection of the tonsils or adenoids, allergies, injury, or cancer. The symptoms can be as varied as sleep apnea, snoring, Upper Airway Resistance Syndrome, bed wetting, and poor growth.
There has been much recent research on how many dental issues may have airway problems as a root cause. Issues such as temporomandibular joint issues (TMJ/TMD), orthodontic issues, narrow jaws, tooth wear, clenching and grinding, cavities, dry mouth, and gum disease can all be signs of obstructed breathing or indicate sleep breathing problems. Dental professionals are trained to examine the upper airways, including the mouth, jaw, nasal passages, tongue, and throat, as well as make the proper referrals to treat sleep breathing issues.
What Does the Dentist Look For?
Here are some signs your dentist looks for to give you a proper diagnosis:
- Tooth wear from bruxism, tooth grinding, or “airway acid reflux”
- Effects of mouth breathing, such as red and swollen gums
- Enlargement of tonsils
- Jaws that pop when you open and close your mouth
- Tongue and lip tie
Obstructed breathing can also be brought on by oral issues, such as a narrow palate or problems with your bite. In these cases, your dentist may be able to help. In other cases, he may refer you to other specialists including:
- An Ear Nose and Throat (ENT) doctor if the dentist finds infected tonsils or an allergic reaction during the dentist’s diagnosis.
- An airway orthodontist or oral maxillofacial surgeon who can help expand and bring jaws forward to help open up the airway and leave more room for the tongue to sit in the mouth.
- A myofunctional therapist who can help strengthen the muscles of the face, lips, tongue, and airway muscles to facilitate better nasal breathing at night.
What Should You Do?
If you think you have sleep breathing issues, discuss them with your dentist at your next visit. It’s important to your quality of life to correct breathing problems as early as possible, and we will work with you to make sure you receive effective treatment.