The Airway, Breathing and Orthodontics

By Dr. David C. Page & Dr. Derek Mahony


Dentists need to play a bigger role in managing airway development and craniofacial formation even though the relationship between the airway, breathing and malocclusion remains quite controversial. Certainly, the airway, mode of breathing, and craniofacial formation are so inter-related during growth and development that form can follow function and function can follow form. So, it is imperative to normalize form and function as early as possible, so that function is optimized for life.


Dentists need to be more involved in managing airway development and craniofacial formation in growing children. Already, dentists are increasingly involved in managing the care and airways of patients of all ages with sleep-related breathing disorders, which are common and often associated with vascular complications such as arterial hypertension, coronary heart disease and stroke.[1]

Current available research is clear that airway obstruction impairs respiration. Impaired respiration can cause craniofacial malformation, malocclusion and jaw deformation. Research also shows that abnormal craniofacial formation can lead to airway obstruction, impaired respiration, impaired nasal breathing, chronic mouth breathing, sleep apnea, sleep disorders and lifelong ill-health.

Craniofacial form can follow craniofacial function and craniofacial function can follow craniofacial form. Therefore, both craniofacial form and function should be managed closely, particularly during the early ages of growth and development.

Early dental diagnosis and treatment of airway dysfunction and craniofacial malformation starting at birth is essential. Current literature shows that early orthodontic and orthopedic treatment impacts the airway and breathing. Orthodontic and orthopedic treatments that positively impact the airway and breathing can absolutely lead to a healthier and longer life.


The airway, mode of breathing, and malocclusion are so inter-related during growth and development that form can follow function and function can follow form. Since form can follow function and function can follow form both should be treated preventively, as early as possible.

It is certain that dysfunction of the human airway and breathing can cause malocclusion and skeletal deformation. Prolonged oral respiration (obligate mouth breathing) often results in dental and skeletal malformation in growing children. Some of these negative changes included excessive molar eruption, clockwise rotation of the mandible, increased anterior vertical face height, retrognathia and open bite.  Often related and created low tongue posture can result in reduced lateral expansion and anterior development of the maxilla.[2]

Conversely, craniofacial malformation and/or malocclusion can negatively impact airway and breathing function. A simple subtle high narrow palate at birth can interfere with breast-feeding and even bottle-feeding such that aberrant tongue swallowing and mouth breathing habits begin.


Normal well-developed airways allow normal breathing through the nose with the mouth closed.  Nasal breathing is important because it is now known to be vital to good health. Research has shown that air breathed through the nose is quite different to the body than air breathed through the mouth.

The benefits of nasal breathing begin within hours of birth when nasal nitric oxide gas can first be detected.[3] Nitric oxide is a potent gas and a key component of human health.[4] Nitric oxide is produced in the nasal sinuses, secreted into the nasal passages and inhaled through the nose. It is well known to prevent bacterial growth.[5] In the lungs nitric oxide improves the ability to absorb oxygen.[6] Nitric oxide is a strong vasodilator and brain transmitter. Furthermore, nitric oxide increases oxygen transport throughout the body and is vital to all body organs.

A good airway and normal nasal breathing is important because nasal airway obstruction has profound effects on the whole body and can even determine a patient’s symptoms and complaints.[7]


Airway obstruction can cause breathing disorders, and craniofacial deformation and malocclusion. Upper airway obstruction can be subtle in children, but it can have long term consequences including failure to thrive, behavioral disturbances, developmental delay, sleep disorders and cor pulmonale.[8]

Airway obstruction can occur for a variety of reasons, including congenital abnormality, adenoid hypertrophy, tonsil hypertrophy, retruded maxilla [Figure #1], retruded mandible [Figure #2]. Obesity increases any present airway obstruction as the tongue, uvula and throat tissues enlarge.

Nasal obstruction, in particular, is a key villain and cause of abnormal growth and development of the face, jaws and dentition [Figure #3]. Nasal obstruction has been linked to a variety of lifelong health disorders including hypertension, stroke, heart disease and even premature death.

Any airway obstruction can chronically affect life and even be life threatening. But nasal airway obstruction is a primary cause of chronic obligate mouth breathing, which can be so dangerous. Fortunately, certain dental treatments can increase nasal breathing and decrease mouth breathing.


Chronic obligate mouth breathing, from impaired nasal respiration, can cause progressively worse abnormal craniofacial development and malocclusion beginning at a very early age. Chronic mouth breathing interferes with proper maxillary and mandibular arch development by disrupting tongue, cheek and lip muscle forces [Figure #4]. Chronic oral breathing causes a down and backward positioning of the mandible, a vertical long-faced growth pattern and multiple abnormal growth patterns in the face, jaws and dentition that are very interrelated.

Characteristics of chronic mouth breathing and respiratory obstruction syndrome include mouth breathing at rest [Figure #5], hypertrophied tonsils and/or adenoids [Figure #6], open-bite, cross-bite, excessive anterior faced height [Figure #7], incompetent lip posture, excessive appearance of the maxillary anterior teeth and gums [Figure #8], narrow external nares, allergic salute [Figure #9], “V” shaped palate [Figure #10] and venous pooling under the eyes [Figure #11]. Research shows there is a significant association between nasal resistance and increased over-jet, open bite, maxillary crowding, Angle Class II malocclusion and posterior cross-bite.[9]

Chronic mouth breathing, nasal incompetence, leads to disordered growth of the naso-ethmoid-maxillary unit and whole craniofacial complex. Chronic mouth breathing has been shown to be 4 times more common in children with orthodontic abnormalities.[10] Oral respiration experiments in primates have shown that obstructed nasal airway leads to open mouth, lower mandible position and facial appearance and dental occlusion different from control animals.[11] Recognition and prevention of nasal incompetence in children and its treatment are important steps needed to ensure proper orthodontic stability and craniofacial growth.


Craniofacial growth is eighty to ninety percent complete by age twelve, so most formation and/or deformation occurs by that age. Unfortunately, age twelve is still the average age that orthodontic and orthopedic treatment starts for most children worldwide. This must change.

The maxilla and mandible are nearly 50% grown at birth and about 90% grown by age 12. Therefore, about 80% of post-birth craniofacial growth occurs between birth and age 12. After age 12 only a fraction of post-birth craniofacial growth remains. It is plain to see that earlier treatment, from birth to age 12, when a majority of post birth growth potential occurs, can better impact craniofacial growth and development than after age 12.

In order to better influence craniofacial growth and development, disparities must be recognized and addressed much earlier than at the current age of twelve. More attention needs to be placed on routine craniofacial examination, diagnosis and treatment beginning at birth.


Dentists are in a unique position to screen children for the recognizable signs and symptoms of mouth breathing, malocclusion, craniofacial anomalies and related conditions such as obstructive sleep apnea syndrome.[12] Early diagnosis of airway obstruction, obligate mouth breathing and malocclusion, with identification of the underlying causes, is essential to prevent worse orofacial growth abnormalities. It is now understood that early diagnosis can lead to earlier orthopedic treatment, which can be more effective, simpler and less restrictive than later age care.

Diagnosis of dental malocclusions and skeletal deformities associated with mouth breathing requires comprehensive and frequent orthodontic examinations.[13] Routine early examination and diagnosis should begin at birth or soon after birth. All infants should be screened for craniofacial deformities that can affect airway form and function. Breast-feeding should be encouraged as it promotes good nasal breathing just as it decreases the incidence of obligate mouth breathing. The reverse is true of bottle fed infants. So infants that are solely bottle-fed should be screened more often for the subtle effects of mouth breathing, aberrant tongue swallowing and thrusting, and palatal arch deformation.

At the age of two and three, subtle dental signs of nasal obstruction and mouth breathing can be seen. Some of the clearest signs include open bite, posterior cross-bite and excessive over-jet.

From ages three to twelve, early airway obstruction and craniofacial deformations too often magnify themselves to such an extent that time inversely relates to the ease and options for correction. To better recognize oral breathing caused dento-skeletal dysmorphism, cephalometric analysis should be used to evaluate facial architecture when obligate mouth breathing is suspected.


Early treatment to reduce airway obstruction, obligate mouth breathing, craniofacial deformity and malocclusion is essential to normalizing growth and development. Early treatment maximizes the  success of corrective orthodontics and orthopedics [Figure #12]. Dentists and otolaryngologists provide unique treatments that can reduce airway obstruction and craniofacial deformity.

Figure #12: Functional Appliances Can Develop Dental Arches, Jaws, Airways and Proper Swallow

Dental orthodontic appliances have been shown to improve the sagittal dimensions of the upper airway in children.[14] Dental rapid maxillary expansion has been shown to be a simple, conservative method of treating impaired nasal respiration in patients 4 years to 30 years, but the younger the patient the better the long term results.[15] Dental maxillary expansion is an effective method for increasing the width of narrow maxillary arches and it also reduces nasal resistance from levels seen with mouth breathing to levels consistent with normal nasal respiration.[16]

Otolaryngologists play a key role in early airway treatment. It has been shown that within a year following surgery (tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy) to improve breathing, obligate mouth breathers with dental malocclusion have improved dental occlusion.[17]


Decades ago, otolaryngologists suggested they should work together with dentists to benefit patients (Crawford-1937, Fowler-1947).  More recently, it was again suggested that better communication and interchange of ideas between the various medical and dental practitioners caring for children with “Stuffy Noses, Long Faces and Dental Malocclusion” would benefit children.[18] It is time for dental doctors and medical doctors to work together more in the areas of airway, breathing and orthodontics.

[1] Mohsenin N, Mostofi MT, Mohsenin V. The role of oral appliances in treating obstructive sleep apnea. J Am Dent ssoc. 2003 Apr; 134(4):442-9.

[2] Principato JJ. Upper airway obstrcution and craniofacial morphology. Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 1991 Jun; 04(6): 881-90.

[3] Schedin U, Norman M, Gustafsson LE, Herin P, Frostell D. Endogenous nitric oxide in the upper airways of health newborn infants. Pediatr Res 1996 Jul;40(1):148-51.

[4] Page DC. Your Jaws~Your Life, SmilePage Publishing, 2003: p. 35

[5] Lundberg JO, Farkas-Szallasi T, Weitzberg E, Rinder J, Lidholm J, Anggaard A, Hokfelt T, Lundberg JM, Alving K. High nitric oxide production in human paranasal sinuses. Nat Med 1995 Apr;1(4):370-3.

[6] Issa A, Lappalainen U, Kleinman M, Bry K, Hallman M. Inhaled nitric oxide decreases hyperoxia-induced surfactant abnormality in preterm rabbits. Pediatr Res 1999 Feb;45(2):247-54.

[7] Kimmelman CP. The systemic effects of nasal obstruction. Otolaryngol Clin North Am 1989 Apr; 22(2):461-6.

[8] Defabjanis P. Impact of nasal airway obstruction on dentofacial development and sleep disturbances in children: preliminary notes. J Clin Pediatr Dent. 2003 Winter; 27(2):95-100.

[9] Lopatiene K, Babarskas A. Malocclusion and upper airway obstruction. Medicina (Kaunas). 2002;38(3):277-83.

[10] Ribault JY, Fourestier J, Gacon J, Renon P. Results of the evaluation of nasal respiration in maxillo-mandibular malocclusion in children. Apropos of 53 cases. Rev Stomatol Chir Maxillofac. 1990;91 Suppl 1: 96-8.

[11] Harvold EP, Tomer BS, Vargervik K, Chierici G. Primate experiments on oral respiration. Am J Orthod. 1981 Apr; 79(4): 359-72.

[12] Kawashima S, Peltomaki T, Laine J, Ronning O. Cephalometric evaluation of facial types in preschool children without sleep-related breathing disorder. Int J pediatr otorhinolaryngol. 2002 Apr 25; 63(2): 119-27

[13] Limme M. Orthodontic studies in mouth breathing. Acta Otorhinolaryngol Belg. 1993; 47(2): 197-208.

[14] Gao H, Xiao D, Zhao Z. Effects of Frankel II appliance on sagittal dimensions of upper airway in children. Hua Xi Kou Qiang Yi Xue Za Zhi. 2003 Apr 20; 2 116-7.

[15] Gray LP. Results of 310 cases of rapid maxillary expansion selected for medical reasons. J Laryngol Otol. 1975 Jun; 89(6): 601-14.

[16] Hershey HG, Stewart BL, Warren DW. Changes in nasal airway resistance associated with rapid maxillary expansion. Am J Orthod. 1976 Mar; 69(3): 274-84.

[17] Weider DJ, Baker GL, Salvatoriello FW. Dental malocclusion and upper airway obstruction, an otolarygnologist’s perspective. Int J Pediatr Otorhinolaryngol. 2003 Apr; 67 (4): 323-31.

[18] Cole P. Doctors and dentists: review of a symposium. J Otolaryngol. 1989 Jun; 18

30 Comments Add your own

  • 1. CJ  |  May 26, 2013 at 10:51 pm

    Thank you for this article. At age 35 I am realizing that my dental issues over the years could have been solved if someone had noticed my sinus issues as a child.

    I can’t believe we are allowing kids to get teeth removed, braces, etc… if there’s such a preventative measure as proper breathing! I hope that this information is affecting health policy and that children get sinuses tested at a young age to avoid mouth problems.

    I am only finding this out after having teeth removed through surgeries, and now braces which have left me with massive amounts of pain and tension in my jaw, neck, back and head.

    • 2. drhelenjones  |  May 27, 2013 at 10:15 am

      Thank you for sending this comment. Functional Orthodontics combined with body therapy is a relatively new treatment approach. However, it is steadily gaining ground because of the substantial benefits to patients. On my blogroll (home page-bottom right) you will find links to some of the leading practitioners in this field.

  • 3. MH  |  May 3, 2014 at 5:38 am

    Thank you for this wonderful information. I have a 7 month old that I believe has a small lower jaw, possibly a high palate & is very fussy & has LOTS of sleep issues. Can you tell me what types of specialists I might look for to have her airway evaluated? Thanks!

    • 4. drhelenjones  |  May 6, 2014 at 11:14 am

      Dentists who practise Functional Orthodontics understand the connection between the jaws and the airway. You can find a list on the following websites: and You could also contact Triple O dental Laboratory ( as they make most of the appliances and may know
      of practitioners who are not group members.

      • 5. MH  |  May 6, 2014 at 4:20 pm

        I guess I should have mentioned I am in the U.S. – seems what you sent me are U.K. practitioners?

      • 6. drhelenjones  |  June 15, 2014 at 7:32 am

        Sorry for the late reply. These are people you could contact regarding finding a functional dentist in your area:
        Dr David Page, Dr Barry Raphael, Dr William Hang Hope this helps.

  • 7. Lisa  |  August 8, 2014 at 11:19 pm

    Can you recommend anyone in Melbourne Australia that specializes in this?

    • 8. drhelenjones  |  August 9, 2014 at 1:21 am

      Hi Lisa

      I would contact Dr Derek Mahony at

      Kind regards


  • 9. google plus adwords  |  August 25, 2014 at 1:21 pm

    An intriguing discussion is worth comment.

    I do think that you should write more about this topic, it might not be a taboo subject but usually folks don’t talk
    about such issues. To the next! All the best!!

    • 10. drhelenjones  |  August 25, 2014 at 5:04 pm

      Thank you for your interesting comment. The British Society for the Study of Cranio-Mandibular Disorders will be emphasising this topic at its meetings in the coming 12 months.

  • 11. Rumpa  |  September 18, 2014 at 2:42 pm

    Hello! I’m a 19 year old girl. For the past 5 months, I’m having swallowing difficulty, mainly a tightness in my throat while swallowing. It all started after I was diagnosed with an ovarian cyst & I cried continuously for few days. I first experienced strange symptoms like air getting trapped in my food pipe everytime I swallowed. Since last 1 month, I started having chirping sounds in my right ear with my jaw movements. After a few days, I started experiencing strange muscular tightness & pressure below my chin & ears & region just above my hyoid bone. I also started experience a clicking & (rubbing of bones) sound in my throat ( while opening my mouth wide open & moving my neck down). Sometimes, I feel a heaviness in my head.. I’ve been to many ENTs……they keep saying everything is right with my throat.
    I’m wearing braces since August 2012. I had to extract 4 teeth & one milk teeth on my upper right side. Can this be TMJ disorder? But due to my gynaecological problem (for which I had to undergo the operation), I’m unable to visit my dentist since the last 3 months. Can orthodontic treatment cause pharyngeal airway obstruction & hyoid bone displacement? If it can cause such symptoms, then can they be corrected too, using braces but without reopening the gaps?

    • 12. drhelenjones  |  September 26, 2014 at 10:13 am

      Yes, you could seek the advice of a functional orthodontist.You can find a list on the Cranio Group website ( and
      also the BSSCMD website (”O” dental laboratories ( make many of the appliances and may know of
      someone in your area.

      • 13. Rumpa  |  October 13, 2014 at 9:03 am

        Sorry for replying late but do you know any functional orthodontist in India? I live in India….
        Shall I go to my orthodontist who started my treatment?
        He extracted my 4 teeth & a milk teeth on my upper right side.
        & another question, can anxiety cause TMJ disorder? I went through tremendous period of anxiety But I never used to clench or grind my teeth.

  • 14. สมัครงาน  |  October 7, 2014 at 6:37 am

    Excellent, what a webpage it is! This web site presents valuable data to us, keep it

  • 15. PATRICIA BOYLE  |  April 10, 2015 at 11:23 am

    I am desperate to fine a correct treatment for my 13 year old son; he was bottle fed as he could not latch on , had current ear and throat infections ,, has swollen inferior conc non allergy related has been a mouth breather since birth, has mal occlusion and recessed chin , under average height for his age; i go from one ENT doctor to another and same with orthodontists, but there is no interdisciplinary approach. PLEASE could you put me in touch with someone in europe We live in Belgium but can travel easily to uk etc

    • 16. christine  |  January 23, 2016 at 1:58 am

      Hi – If you can get to the Uk I think you should look into Orthotropics and Mike Mew as they deal with this sort of treatment. May be worth seeing if they know of anyone doing this work closer to you

      • 17. drhelenjones  |  January 23, 2016 at 11:06 am

        Thank you for your comment. Members of the British Society for the Study of Cranio-Mandibular Disorders (see, of which both Professor John & Dr Mike Mew are active members, have a common objective towards treatment. ie: early intervention, myofunctional therapy, cranial osteopathy & non-extraction. The Myobrace system- is gaining in popularity as it incorporates these principles and uses maxillary development appliances ( Biobloc stage 1 & the ALF) together with the myofunctional trainers. Dr Chris Farrell, like me, spent a considerable time working in John mew’s practice and getting to understand the importance of a correct tongue position.

  • 18. Cat  |  August 27, 2016 at 1:29 am

    Can you recommend a specialist in Perth, Western Australia?

  • 20. Susan  |  October 20, 2016 at 7:22 pm

    Excellent article! I have been trying to have someone listen to me about my grandsons issues since birth. He is now 2. He has a high narrow palate and is a huge mouth breather. He was literally born sucking his thumb which he has continued to do however only when he sleeps. He has a significant overbite. His is literally incapable of chewing his food properly because his teeth don’t appear to line up. His has been to the dentist who says nothing can be done at this age. we are I. Canada and would really appreciate some guidance on who we should be looking to for a consultation

    • 21. drhelenjones  |  October 22, 2016 at 10:41 am

      Susan, I am sorry to learn about the problems that your grandson has. I would advise you to contact Dr Curtis Westersund. He has a practice in Galgary and will know of practitioners carrying out this approach to treatment in other parts of Canada.

  • 22. Yvette L.  |  February 28, 2017 at 4:52 am

    Wonderful and informative article. My 5 1/2 year old is a mouth breather and has been diagnosed with minor sleep apnea. She’s recently lost 2 baby teeth and the new ones are coming in very crooked, even behind the gum. She asked me if she was related to sharks because of the shape of her new teeth. Haha. Her dentist suggested possible braces in the future. My daughter also has attention issues. But after reading this I hope to find a good dentist here in Southern California who will treat the underlying cause instead of the symptom. Thanks so much for sharing this information!

  • 23. joan mastrangeli  |  January 4, 2018 at 8:09 am

    Hello, I am visiting your page once again – where I left the following comment back in September 2017 (which was over 4 months ago as of this date.) I do not see my commented posted – so perhaps your site was closed for further comments – but I wanted to let you know that the problem has gotten progressively worse. Swallowing is more and more difficult. Every single time I eat food gets stuck in my throat. My ENT ordered a barium swallow test, and I am awaiting the results – but every physician I talk to about the problem seem surprised and without knowledge on the subject.
    You kindly responded to my previous comment/request by email with a referral to an Orthodontic dentist near the Houston, TX area. The email was accidentally deleted after I received it, and I did not get the info. Would you kindly send it again. I am getting desperate. Any insights would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you! Joan M.

    23. joan | September 1, 2017 at 3:48 am

    Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    Hi! I am a 65 year old female who had never had braces until Jan. 2017. Even though I had some overlap of two bottom teeth, my top teeth were perfectly straight (I was told by many that I have a beautiful smile ! 🙂 My dentist continually suggested that I get braces to straighten the crooked bottom teeth. I am now eight months into the braces, and it has been a nightmare!! At about the 4 months point, I distraught when my top teeth developed large gaps between them ( he also shaved the top teeth when I am sure he meant to file the bottom!) Now, at 8 months in, my jaw has been pushed so far forward that I feel like I am choking!! On tray 18, I expressed my concern to Dr. B – and he dismissed it, saying “well, your teeth are moving, so you may have to move the food around a little more!” I am getting desperate and need a consult with an airway specialist asap. I did see one other orthodontist, but it seems no one else wants to get involved, and my Dr. refuses to admit that anything is wrong. When I eat, food often goes down my windpipe, and I even suffered from a case of pneumonia that I strongly feel was a result of this problem. Can you please recommend some one in the Houston, Texas area for me to see – before I choke to death?
    Thank you!!


    • 24. drhelenjones  |  January 4, 2018 at 10:33 am

      Dear Joan

      I am sorry to hear that my email got deleted. This is the contact which I sent you: Dr Skip Truitt, Orthodontist in Gainsville, Texas. He may be able to recommend someone in Houston who could help you.

      Kind regards

      • 25. Joan  |  April 2, 2018 at 7:35 pm

        Thank you Dr. Helen Jones. Just an update. I did contact Dr. Skip Truitt, who replied saying he no longer has a private practice. However, he did refer me to Dr. Michael Hodapp in League City, TX. who is very busy and could not see me until 10 weeks out. The week of my appt. has finally arrived. I will post any progress on this website so others who have had the same horrible experiences can also be helped. My personal experience has gone from bad to worse.Thank you again for your help!

  • 26. Lisa Fato  |  May 15, 2018 at 3:11 pm

    I am a 45 year old adult who has damon braces on who also has a tongue thrust and is going for myofunctional therapy.. My orthodontist tells me to wear the elastics to push teeth back in and my therapist and a holistic airway dentist tells me to NOT wear the elastics that the jaws should go forward for better airway. However, while doing the therapy the past month and stopped wearing elastics and movements of jaws and going forward again, me to I feel like I’m choking.. I don’t know what is causing the tightness in my throat and narrow traechea/airways, my jaws that are going forward again, the tongue thrust, position of my tongue, the exercises or what.. It is very uncomfortable to say the least.

    • 27. drhelenjones  |  May 16, 2018 at 10:26 am

      Lisa, Thank you for your comment.
      I would advise you to find a Functional Orthodontist to reassess your problem. You can find a list of members on the BSSCMD website.

  • 28. AD182  |  November 14, 2019 at 5:03 am

    I am a 29 year old who had braces at 12 years old and I feel it has led to me developing an extremely flat face and receding lower jaw, difficulty breathing and sleeping. Do you have any advice or recommendations on where to go?

  • 29. Luis  |  May 3, 2021 at 5:18 pm

    Hello, do you know of rapid palatial expansion, maxillary skeletal expansion providers in the UK?

    • 30. drhelenjones  |  September 26, 2021 at 10:19 pm

      Dear Luis

      Rapid Palatal Expansion is not a treatment that I would recommend. A biological approach such as the ALF works quite differently. See my post about Tasha Turzo-Moore’s excellent book.


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