Yes, It’s Your Dentist: A Surprising Source of Help for Sleep Apnea Sufferers

Sleep is crucial to every aspect of human health and directly impacts our daily lives. To look and feel your best you need to know the warning signs of common sleep problems and how to respond to them.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) not only stops your breathing through the night but can cause additional health problems like high blood pressure, diabetes and even a stroke or heart attack. Most people who have sleep apnea will go to their doctors for help, but dentists can help, too. Here is a guide to OSA and the treatment options available, including dental appliances.

What is OSA?

OSA affects over 20 million adults in the U.S who suffer periods of shallow breathing and hundreds of interruptions to their breathing over the night, which can last between a few seconds and a little over a minute. It is a chronic condition which occurs when someone’s throat muscles relax too much during sleep, causing the soft tissue to collapse and block the airway. These breathing pauses reduce oxygen levels to the brain and typically cause brief awakenings that disturb the sleep and can cause discomfort.

How It Is Diagnosed

A sleep specialist doctor (i.e. a “Sleep Medicine Physician”) diagnoses OSA with a complete sleep evaluation which may involve overnight sleep at a sleep centre or a sleep apnea test conducted in your home. Common signs of the condition include consistent snoring, gasping or choking sounds during sleep. Though more common with men, the risk for women increases during and after menopause and people of either sex are at risk if they have excess body weight, a family history of the condition, misaligned jaws or narrow airways.

OSA Treatment Options

If you have multiple, complex dental needs or just don’t know where to go consider going to an all-in-one facility like Dentistry with TLC. A sleep doctor will typically conduct a physical exam on the OSA patient which checks their jaw, tongue, and airways to discover the exact nature of the problem. They’ll then present three – or one of three – broad treatment options. Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy feeds air to the patient through a face mask connected by tubing to a constantly running machine. Oral appliance therapy also attempts to keep the airway open and unobstructed, but with a mouth guard-like device. Finally, depending on the severity of the condition, surgical options may be discussed. Surgery is risky, and different surgical producers offer varying side effects and rates of success for different patients. Those who don’t want to risk surgery, who can’t use CPAP equipment or have found it insufficient, uncomfortable or ineffective can look to dentists for oral appliance therapy.

Oral Appliance Therapy

Oral appliances can be effective to treat both generic symptoms like snoring but also OSA. They fit like a mouth guard around your teeth while you sleep and support your jaw in a forward position to keep the upper airway open. They don’t make any noise, are molded to fit comfortably and are easy to transport and clean.

Many patients find them more comfortable than CPAP masks, partially because they allow for greater movement during sleep and have a negligible chance of coming off. If you don’t want to adversely affect your lifestyle and find the device suited to your needs, oral appliances may be for you.

Why It’s So Important to Treat

If left untreated, OSA can cause several further problems in the short term and puts you at greater risk of serious health issues in the long term. Morning headaches, memory loss and excessive sleepiness and fatigue are common consequences of untreated OSA. These symptoms – especially when compounded –  pose a threat to your safety as you run a greater risk of workplace accidents and drowsy driving. Insufficient sleep has been recognized as a major public health problem by the CDC for these reasons and others.

In the long term, OSA increases your risk of developing serious problems like chronic acid reflux, erectile dysfunction, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. Severe cases – especially when combined with alcohol, poor sleeping posture, and other problems – can also increase your risk of death, especially in older patients.

If you and your doctor decide on an orthodontic treatment path, they’ll have to write you a prescription for a sleep apnea device and a referral to a qualified dentist. Luckily, there is a great variety of appliances (over 100!) cleared by the FDA and they are typically covered by medical insurance plans.

Rhys Owen works in a dental office and enjoys penning a range of dental articles when time allows. His articles appear on health, wellness and lifestyle blogs.