Interestingly, orofacial pain sufferers are predominantly women. Why? We don't completely understand, but one proposed theory relates to the hormone estrogen. Studies indicate that estrogen levels may be associated with varying levels of inflammation associated with the temporomandibular joints (TMJ). Additionally, female jaw muscles are more prone to injury and exhaustion as they actually receive less blood flow and thus less oxygen. So? What's the significance with less oxygen? Less oxygen implies that the muscles undergo anaerobic respiration (remember from chemistry?) producing lactic acid resulting in muscle cramping, spasms and pain.
Is that it?
No! Although obstructive sleep apnea is more prevalent in men, it can occur as well in women. There is a small percentage of women suffering from orofacial pain who also have a history of obstructive sleep apnea. According to a recent study at the University of California, Los Angeles, women with sleep apnea may experience more damage to their brain cells due to obstructive sleep apnea. The researchers compared brain cells between individuals with and without sleep apnea as well as the brain cells between men and women diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea. They also reported that women with obstructive sleep apnea presented with more anxiety and symptoms of depression than men.
Why is this important?
Screening for obstructive sleep apnea and other sleep-related breathing disorders is essential! Although there's only a small percentage of women that suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, many will unfortunately not be diagnosed.
What does this mean?
Although obstructive sleep apnea stereotypically affects overweight middle-aged men with large neck circumferences, we cannot forget about women!
What can you do?
Ask to be screened for obstructive sleep apnea!