“Yes. A new study published in the Saudi Medical Journal found that the size of a person’s tonsils may indicate their risk for obstructive sleep apnea, a condition in which blocked upper airways cause breathing to stop and restart repeatedly during sleep.
Tongue indentations, or teeth imprints on the tongue that suggest it’s too big for the mouth, may also be a sign.
More than 18 million adults in the United States are affected by OSA. Since people with the condition are often suffering from interrupted and reduced sleep, it can lead to fatigue, irritability, and trouble concentrating.
In severe cases, the disorder can lead to learning and memory difficulties, heart attack, congestive heart failure, cardiac arrhythmia, stroke or depression, the National Sleep Foundation reports.
To reach their conclusions, the researchers examined 200 patients in clinics at the University of Dammam College of Dentistry in Saudi Arabia. They had participants complete the Berlin Questionnaire, a screening assessment for OSA.
Patients were also screened for known and potential OSA risk factors including neck circumference, body weight, blood pressure and the size of their tongue, tonsils and uvula.
Of these 200 participants, researchers concluded that 23 percent were at risk for OSA, with 80 percent of those being male. Obesity, large tonsils and tongue indentations were the most common factors among people who were deemed high risk.
The findings are particularly important in the way they lend themselves to dental practice and education. While dentists won’t be able to formally diagnose OSA in patients, equipping them with the knowledge to screen for it could potentially save many cases from going undiagnosed. The University at Buffalo points out that a dentist who recognizes an enlarged tongue or tonsils can suggest a patient visit a sleep specialist.
“We need to teach students about this condition before they get out in the field and educate dentists about the major role they play in identifying and treating patients with sleep-related disorders,” said study author and UB orthodontic researcher Thikriat Al-Jewair in a statement. “Dentists see into their patient’s mouths more than physicians do and the signs are easy to identify.”
The study researchers said their future studies will increase the sample size, vary the age groups and monitor participants overnight to learn more.”