In too many people that I meet these days, both young children and older patients, I observe that the lower jaw is set back too far and it looks like they have no chin. It’s almost rampant how many children have this problem and yet so little is being done about it. When that lower jaw is set back then the airway, i.e. breathing, can be adversely affected. These folks will breathe through their mouth in order to open the breathing passage as much as possible. This is what we call a compensatory effect- the body realizes there is not enough oxygen coming in so the person now breathes in as much air as they can through their mouth, instead of the preferred way through the nose. Here are some of the issues with mouth breathing:
- Being a mouth breather will affect the person’s health as well. A mouth breather tends to initiate breathing in the upper chest, whereas normal breathing comes from the diaphragm. This means the body has to work harder to breathe and oftentimes the chest breather will take extra breaths or yawn to get in more air.
- Mouth breathing is often erratic and not very smooth. This keeps the person in high sympathetic nervous system activity-i.e. in constant ‘fight or flight ‘mode – and this disrupts the normal digestion, sleep, hormonal recharging, mood, mental ability, and many other bodily functions.
- Children who breathe through their mouth tend not to be well oxygenated and this affects their mental development. Many children wake up tired, want to sleep in all the time, and generally feel irritable all day long. For many of them, this lack of restfulness can lead to a diagnosis of ADD/OCD/ADHD. In reality- they are just sleep deprived.
- Mouth breathing tends to force the body into a forward head posture position which then puts stress on the neck and back. Again- this is a compensatory position as the body tries to open the airway as much as possible. This then leads to long term back and neck pain which can lead to the need for neck/back surgical correction.
The message to parents is that they need to take a moment and just look at their child now and then. Are they breathing through their mouth? Is their head bent into a forward position? Do they snore at night or sleep with difficulty? All these issues can lead to sleep apnea, even in very young children. In turn, sleep apnea is now directly correlated with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even cancer.
So what can be done about being a mouth breather? First, get a diagnosis of what is going on. In our office we have an xray that can measure the volume of the airway and this is a good start on the analysis. Also- you might want to have a sleep test done to see how efficiently the child/adult is sleeping. As for actual treatment, most sleep doctors will suggest you wear a CPAP to force the air down the throat and into the lungs. Some people do fine with this, and others not so much. From a dental viewpoint, the use of the ALF appliance has been extremely effective in actually fixing many cases of sleep apnea and sleep disordered breathing. The ALF expands the arches, making more airway space and allows the tongue better roof of the mouth positioning. In addition, it helps to level distorted cranial bones which allows for better flows in the skull- think blood, cerebral spinal fluid, and lymphatic drainage.
If mouth breathing can be identified at an early age, there is really good hope that the person can achieve better breathing, better sleep, higher functioning, and improved quality of life in a short period of time. Early diagnostics are the key to a better life!