Is There a Link Between Sleep Apnea and TMJ?

Getting good quality sleep on a nightly basis is fundamental to good health. However, there are several conditions that can interfere with the quality of your sleep, some of them directly and others indirectly.

In today’s blog post, we look at two health conditions that can affect sleep quality: sleep apnea and temporomandibular disorder or TMJ.

What you need to know about sleep apnea

We will focus on obstructive sleep apnea (also known as OSA), which is the most common form of sleep apnea, affecting approximately 1 billion people all over the world.

People with obstructive sleep apnea experience multiple interruptions to their breathing while they’re asleep. This is caused by a problem in the upper airways muscles, which don’t hold their position and collapse, causing a blockage that interrupts breathing.

These interruptions to the oxygen supply can happen several times every night. Depending on the severity of the condition, they can happen more than 30 times per hour.

What you need to know about TMJ

TMJ or temporomandibular disorder is a condition that affects the jaw joint. Problems in this joint can affect the nerves and muscles on face and neck, causing jaw pain, earaches, headaches, difficulties chewing or speaking, and a limited range of motion in the jaw area.

Although TMJ isn’t classified as a sleep disorder, it can affect the quality and duration of your nightly rest, just like OSA does.

How does TMJ affect sleep quality?

Basically, this is due to the most common symptom of this condition (pain and / or discomfort). Think about any time in the past when you’ve had a body ache or you’ve been in pain. Chances are that this made it difficult to fall asleep, or to stay asleep.

Studies have confirmed that this disorder is linked to poor sleep quality. One of those studies found that up to 90% of people diagnosed with temporomandibular disorder report poor sleep quality.

The link between obstructive sleep apnea and TMJ

So is there a connection between TMJ and OSA? Although these are different conditions, the evidence suggests that there is a link between them, although we can’t affirm that one condition causes the other in every single case. 

Having said that, it’s possible that having one of these conditions increases your chances of developing the other. For example, let’s take the habit of teeth grinding or bruxism, which is a risk factor for both temporomandibular disorder and sleep apnea.

According to the Sleep Foundation, the nervous system dysfunction that triggers jaw clenching and teeth grinding could also be responsible for disordered breathing. And conversely, it has also been suggested that in some people, teeth grinding could develop in response to the restricted airflow caused by OSA.

Moreover, teeth grinding is usually accompanied by jaw clenching. Over a period of time, this can wear the teeth down, causing an imbalance in the jaw joint and possibly leading to the onset of temporomandibular disorder. 

It could also be that the distress caused by TMJ-related pain causes the person to grind their teeth. After all, bruxism is linked to high stress and anxiety levels.

What happens when you have both TMJ and OSA

In some cases, jaw joint problems and obstructive sleep apnea are completely unrelated and appear due to different causes. However, if you are affected by both disorders, your symptoms may be more severe. 

For example, during a sleep apnea episode, the brain may send a signal to the jaw muscles and order them to contract in order to open up the airways and cope with oxygen deprivation. 

In people who also suffer from temporomandibular disorder, this tension in the jaw area can worsen the pain they already experience.

Since both disorders affect overall sleep quality and can be harmful to your overall health, you will want to have them treated by a specialist, whether one causes the other or they have different causes.

The treatment for jaw joint disorders can include anti-inflammatory medication or injections to the affected area, as well as stretching exercises and the use of mouth guards to prevent further jaw clenching and teeth grinding. 

Oral appliances are also a treatment option for OSA, although the most common and effective treatment is CPAP therapy. The nightly use of a CPAP machine ensures the airways remain open while you sleep. 

In any case, what’s really important is getting help as soon as you see your sleep habits affected. Early treatment is essential to help manage the symptoms of both OSA and jaw joint problems.