Passing out occurs within three minutes without oxygen. Permanent brain damage can occur within four minutes without oxygen. Death can occur within four to six minutes without oxygen.
It’s impossible to overstate how important a constant supply of oxygen is to the human body. You may survive a week without water and several weeks without food, but try to go several minutes without air and you risk permanent damage to your health.
Continuous airflow is vitally important to our health, yet many people suffer from airway issues that obstruct the flow of air to the lungs and slowly damage health over the long term. Without optimal oxygen levels, the body suffers.
If you know you suffer from sleep apnea or another airway issue, here’s how it may be affecting your life.
How Airway Issues Affect Oral Health
When the airway is obstructed, the jaw may move back and forth during sleep in order to help open the airway and get more oxygen to the lungs. This movement is known as bruxism, or teeth grinding. Over time, grinding can wear down the surfaces of the teeth, cause chips and cracks, and erode the protective enamel on the surface, all of which make cavities more likely. It can also cause gum recession and loosening of the teeth which may lead later on to gum inflammation (gingivitis) and then gum disease (periodontitis), the leading cause of tooth loss in adults.
Bruxism can also cause or worsen problems with the jaw joint and cause temporomandibular dysfunction, or TMD. As TMD gets worse, it can lead to pain and tenderness in the jaw, migraines, pain in the neck and shoulders, and pain or ringing in the ears.
How Airway Issues Affect Overall Health
Because sleep is so important to overall health, airway issues that disturb sleep can have a big impact on overall health.
Depression and mood disturbances are potential consequences of airway issues. Poor sleep quality has long been linked to depression and appears to be the result of altered connectivity in certain areas of the brain. Chronic pain is also associated with poor sleep and airway issues. One study found that chronic pain was present in over 50% of people with obstructive sleep apnea.
Hormones are also disrupted when sleep is disrupted, as a lot of hormone regulation happens during sleep. In particular, human growth hormone (HGH) is only produced during Stage III sleep. If disrupted sleep means that Stage III never arrives, HGH isn’t released and the critical work it does repairing and regenerating the body’s tissues doesn’t occur.
How Airway Issues Affect Quality of Life
All of the health issues above can certainly affect quality of life negatively, and there are other consequences of airway issues that can also lessen quality of life.
Fully or partially blocked airways are often accompanied by snoring, and this snoring may be so loud and disruptive that your bed partner no longer wants to share a bed with you. You may find your libido has decreased as your sleep has gotten worse. You likely experience fatigue and daytime sleepiness that makes completing regular tasks more difficult.
Treating Airway Issues Through Dentistry
The only way to have a true diagnosis of OSA or airway obstruction is to undergo a sleep study. However, if you suspect you have airway resistance or obstruction or you already know you do, the dentist should be next on your list to see. Dentists are in a great position to be able to treat many types of airway issues, since that’s the part of the body we know best. Dentists experienced in treating airway issues may be able to treat some patients through the use of special oral appliances or possibly orthodontic care to open up the airway.
This is one of the things I focus on in my practice and it’s very rewarding to see a patient’s health and quality of life improve through dental treatment. This is a case when dentistry goes beyond teeth to truly change lives.