Can Your Tongue Detect Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

Man with OSA snoring while wife lays wide awake in bed


Have you ever gotten out of bed in the morning and noticed teeth imprints on your tongue? Are you habitually tied throughout the day, even if you get a “full night’s rest”? These two things may suggest that you are experiencing a degree of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). The Saudi Medical Journal published a report in February which supports the notion that your tongue can prompt you to look for other signs of obstructive sleep apnea. Researchers observed, tested, and assessed 200 male and female patients for risk factors and symptoms of OSA. The findings showed “tongue indentations, tonsil size, and a high Epworth Sleepiness Scale score were independent risks of OSA”.


What is OSA

24% of adult males and 9% of adult females experience obstructive sleep apnea. Brief and repeated cessations of breathing during periods of sleep characterize this disorder. In simpler terms, people with OSA repeatedly stop breathing for at least 10 seconds throughout the night. Fragmented sleep elicits fatigue, drowsiness, and irritability throughout the day for OSA patients. Interrupted sleeping can also cause low blood oxygen levels and in worst case scenarios, hypertension, heart disease, stroke, depression and memory loss.


diagram of obstructive sleep apnea

Other Symptoms

The study published in the Saudi Medical Journal reports that tongue indentations can indicate obstructive sleep apnea. In the study, “obesity, large tonsils and tongue indentations were the most common factors among people deemed as high risk. Obese patients were 10x more likely to show symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea than non-obese fellows. The study also stated habitual snoring was present in “18.2% of the females and 81.8% of the males” at risk of OSA. Excessive sleepiness and trouble concentrating can signal OSA. These signs should not be ignored as they can lead to more complicated outcomes mentioned earlier.


Screening for OSA

Though tongue indentations are not a definitive diagnosis of obstructive sleep disorder, these signs can help dentists screen potential OSA cases. Dentists spend more time in patient’s mouths, giving them more access to evidence of sleep apnea than primary care physicians. Recognizing tongue indentations or enlarged tonsils can prompt a dentist to suggest further sleep testing. Small signals can prevent OSA cases from going undiagnosed.


man with OSA showing signs of fatigue as he wakes up


Diagnosing Obstructive Sleep Apnea

The most common method of diagnosing OSA is a sleep study. Many sleep centers require an overnight stay to track a patient’s breathing patterns during sleep. “Eye movement, muscle activity, heart rate, respiratory effort, airflow, and blood oxygen levels” are also observed.

Before a sleep study, possible patients should keep sleep journals. These journals keep track of nightly sleep, naps, and feelings of rest / exhaustion throughout the day. This publication by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute offers a sample sleep diary for people concerned about the rest patterns. Overall, doctors consider a variety of factors when making a diagnosis, but the sleep study, sleep journal, and a history of snoring are all relevant components.


Do you wake with teeth marks on your tongue? Or has your dentist noticed tongue indentations or enlarged tonsils during your visits? If you are worried that you suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, start a journal of your sleeping patterns, note your tiredness, and find out if you snore at night. Ask your dental professional if they see any abnormalities during your next visit, and schedule an appointment with a sleep specialist to find out for sure!