Have you ever been around a toddler snoring or seen an adult dozing off on the couch with mouth agape, occasionally gasping between snores? Many of us, from kids to adults, grapple with airway issues that often come with overlooked symptoms. Breathing and teeth alignment tie back to the way our jaws develop during childhood. It all begins at birth, and a multitude of factors can shape our jaws detrimentally, leading to misaligned teeth and compromised breathing. Genetics, bottle-feeding, pacifiers, soft diets and more can shape our growing jaws – impacting our health in more ways than we might think.

Amid the surge in sleep apnea cases among all age groups, it’s not just us medical experts who need to stay ahead – it’s vital for our communities to be informed advocates for their children’s and their own well-being. This article aims to unveil the connection between breathing and crooked teeth, shedding light on hidden links that impact kids to adults.

The Foundation: Jaw Structure and Breathing

To truly grasp the essence of healthy breathing as nature intended, let’s delve into a few fundamental concepts. Our bodies maximize oxygen absorption, air filtration, moisture regulation, and vital chemical pathways by breathing through the nose. Once the air makes its way into the nasal passage, an unobstructed route should guide it through the throat, behind the tongue, and onwards. Any interruption in this airway’s flow can result in diminished oxygen levels – a factor with profound health implications, particularly in young individuals whose jaw development lays the groundwork for adult respiratory function. The significance of jaw structures, which stop growing in the late teen years, cannot be overlooked as they form the basis of a properly functioning airway passage.  Most blockages are caused by narrow nasal passageways, swollen nasal tissue, swollen adenoids and/or tonsils, or the back of the tongue collapsing into the airway. 

What are normal jaws? The upper jaw should grow wide and forward, with the tongue playing a pivotal role in this.  A wide upper jaw helps develop the inside of the nose for easy breathing. The lower jaw should project forward with the mouth closed during breathing, while the tongue sits in the roof of the mouth and out of the airway.  Lips should close without any strain. 

Why do jaws grow abnormally?  Genetics, pacifiers, bottle feeding, soft diets, habits, mouth breathing, and tongue-ties, can all narrow the upper jaw or cause deficient lower jaws.  When the upper jaw narrows, it can cause the inside of the nose to be narrow and restrict airflow.  This restriction can cause swelling of the adenoids and tissue inside the nose.  In turn, the swollen structures can eventually lead to enough blockage of air to cause a child to mouth-breathe.  

Chronic mouth-breathing in children can cause the following: large tonsils, snoring, bed wetting, hyperactivity, dry mouth, allergies, asthma, grinding, headaches and more. 

A Growing Problem: Lack of Space for Teeth

When the upper jaw is narrow, this constriction of the bone leads to a lack of sufficient space for teeth to erupt correctly.  This can be observed even as young as one as the first baby teeth are entering in or out of alignment.  Large spaces between baby teeth are normal, so a lack of spaces already indicates a lack of proper jaw growth.  Although jaws keep developing, when a child’s narrow jaw(s) begin early, self-correction is unlikely. Instead, it can worsen and lead to more severe dental and breathing issues.  Because jaw growth slows and eventually halts during the late teen years, in my orthodontic practice, we begin observing children as young as 5, and sometimes even earlier if we suspect an airway issue. While not all kids require orthodontic help at this stage, detecting concerns later on might limit the effectiveness of treatments and could lead to irreversible problems.  

The Ripple Effect: From Childhood to Adulthood

The link between how we breathe and crooked teeth isn’t just a childhood concern – it continues into adulthood. Even if teeth were straightened in childhood, issues can persist if the jaws and bite weren’t properly addressed. This might lead to problems like heavy snoring, teeth grinding, gum recession, teeth cracking, chipping of the front teeth, jaw joint pain and even sleep apnea.

Obstructive sleep apnea has been linked to a range of detrimental health problems, including stroke and heart attacks, cognitive impairment and daytime fatigue. Thus, the relationship between jaw structure, breathing and overall health is a complex web that spans from youth to maturity.  

Addressing the Connection: A Functional Approach

As the connection between breathing and crooked teeth becomes more evident, it’s crucial to adopt a functional (root cause) and comprehensive approach to both dental and overall well-being. While orthodontic treatment is often needed to fix malocclusion and crooked teeth, it’s equally vital to tackle the underlying factors – the jaw structure and airway.

Evaluating children’s airway and jaw development, and then providing treatment to encourage natural nasal breathing, greatly improves their growth path and overall health.

In adults, recognizing the signs of airway issues, such as sleep apnea, can have a profound impact on both dental health and overall well-being.  Although adult jaws cannot be modified as easily as children’s, there are advances that can still create life-changing outcomes.  With therapies such as orthodontic bone-supported expansion, jaw surgery, tongue-tie releases, and ENT-related procedures, adults can still enjoy options to improve their breathing, quality of life, and smiles. 

Having practiced orthodontics for over a decade, and witnessing numerous children and adults grappling with undiagnosed airway problems, my belief in enlightening my community about this subject has grown stronger. As a parent of three young kids, I understand that as caregivers, we possess an innate sense when things aren’t right with our children or even our partners who snore. The great news is that there are a lot of options to improve breathing and having a beautiful smile.