What is Bruxism and How Is It Related to Sleep Apnea?

Bruxism is a condition where the person suffers from teeth grinding and jaw clenching. The condition is widespread. One study suggests that as much as one-third of the population are bruxers.

Without proper treatment, you may suffer from worn down teeth, headaches, jaw aches, loose or cracked teeth, and receding gums. More importantly, bruxism can be a symptom of sleep apnea – a sleep disorder known as the new silent killer.

What is Bruxism?

In general terms, people with bruxism grind their teeth and clench their jaws. The condition is common among children and decreases with age. The disorder is lowest in people over 65.

There are two types of bruxism:

Awake Bruxism

While awake, grinding and clenching are mostly reactions to stress, concentration, or anger. Most often, this happens without awareness. Behavior modification can help control this condition. A dental splint can also be helpful.

Sleep Bruxism

People with sleep bruxism experience unconscious and nocturnal grinding and clenching. Bruxing usually occurs when the sleeper goes from a deeper to a lighter stage of sleep.

Repeating this pattern multiple times during the night results in fatigue, pain, and dysfunction of the jaw. Grinding can also lead to worn and broken teeth. Daytime anxiety, stress, smoking, heavy alcohol use, snoring, and sleep apnea may cause sleep bruxism, but we are not sure.

Since this is an unconscious pattern, behavior modification is not effective in treating it. The gold standard of treatment is a nighttime bite guard or splint. However, if sleep apnea is causing bruxism, there are new and successful treatments available. Also, psychological intervention can be helpful for stress management and habit control.

Is There a Connection between Bruxism and Sleep Apnea?

People with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) experience very shallow breathing or repeated interruptions in their breathing while asleep.

Such disrupted breathing tends to occur first during REM sleep. Over time, the condition grows more severe and may spread to deep non-REM sleep and then into light non-REM sleep.

This obstruction happens when the person’s airway collapses. As a survival response, the body compensates by clenching the jaw to provide better airflow. In addition to clenching, roughly 25 percent of obstructive sleep apnea sufferers grind their teeth at night.

OSA-related Bruxism and Cardiovascular Disease

Grinding and clenching may improve airflow but only up to a certain extent. The body is still not getting enough oxygen. If left untreated, oxygen deprivation can be a contributing factor to the development of cardiovascular disease.

Oxygen levels in the bloodstream plummet during an apnea episode. As a coping mechanism, the brain transmits signals to the nervous system to narrow the blood vessels. This narrowing helps increase oxygen flow to the brain and heart. As a result, the person suffers from high blood pressure while sleeping. In many cases, blood pressure rises by 20 percent.

OSA is a significant risk factor for increased blood pressure. Researchers discovered that those who have sleep apnea often suffer from high blood pressure all the time, not just at night. Increased blood pressure is a primary contributor to multiple cardiovascular diseases such as cardiac arrest and stroke.

Research by the National Sleep Foundation revealed that men suffering from severe OSA were more likely to develop congestive heart failure by 58 percent compared to men without OSA. The same study measured the apnea-hypopnea index (AHI) or the number of apnea and hypopnea episodes per hour of sleep of men aged 40 – 70. Those who scored 30 or above were more likely to develop coronary heart disease by 68 percent than those who scored below 30.

Former American Heart Association President Donna Arnett said, “The evidence is very strong for the relationship between sleep apnea and hypertension and cardiovascular disease generally, so people really need to know that.”

Sleep apnea poses severe and possibly fatal health issues. Most people who have the condition are entirely unaware of it. It truly is a silent killer.

If you think that you suffer from OSA, contact a dentist who specializes in sleep disorders now. There are new dental treatments that help in the treatment of sleep apnea.

What to Look For

If you suspect that your grinding of the teeth is a symptom of OSA, be on the lookout for the following signs:

  • Trouble staying asleep
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Attention or memory issues
  • Loud Snoring
  • Dry or a sore throat upon waking up
  • Jaw aches
  • Headaches

If you or someone you know is suffering from these symptoms, get professional help immediately.