Trouble Sleeping? Talk to Your Dental Team

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How Can My Dentist Help Identify Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

During regular dental exams, your dentist performs a thorough evaluation of your entire oral cavity, putting them in a unique position to identify signs of sleep apnea. Sleep apnea often causes problems like teeth clenching, grinding, and/or acid reflux, which leave visible evidence on your teeth.

You might be wondering, “What does my dentist have to do with improving my quality of sleep?” If so, this article is for you. Your dentist can play a vital role in helping you achieve good quality sleep through the treatment of sleep apnea with an oral device.

What Is Sleep Apnea?

The word apnea literally means “not breathing.” Sleep apnea is a condition that causes a person to stop breathing periodically during sleep. There are two forms of sleep apnea: central sleep apnea and obstructive sleep apnea.

Central sleep apnea stems from a neurological problem and requires treatment by an experienced sleep physician. Obstructive sleep apnea, which is far more common, occurs because something blocks the airway and causes breathing to stop.

Both types of apnea can be mild, moderate, or severe in nature, depending on the frequency and duration of the apneic events (how often and how long someone stops breathing).

Signs and Symptoms of Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Dentists can help play an important role in recognizing the signs and symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea, however many signs and symptoms can also be recognized prior to your next check-up. Obstructive sleep apnea can occur at any age, and is more common in men than women. There are many predisposing factors to sleep apnea, such as one’s anatomical airway size and obesity.

A person affected with obstructive sleep apnea may experience signs and symptoms like:

  • Snoring – Snoring is a noise caused by loose tissue moving or rattling as someone breathes during sleep. It often indicates a smaller airway or the potential for anatomical obstructions.
  • Daytime sleepiness or fatigue – Not breathing during sleep leads to poor quality sleep. People with sleep apnea often feel overly tired throughout the day and may fall asleep easily if given the opportunity during the day.
  • Restlessness during sleep – Sleep apnea often causes multiple awakenings during sleep, so the affected person often feels restless.
  • Sudden awakenings with a sensation of gasping or choking – When the airway remains obstructed for long enough, the brain sends an emergency signal to awaken and breathe.
  • Dry mouth or sore throat upon awakening – Sleep apnea is often accompanied by mouth breathing, which can cause both dry mouth and sore throats.
  • Trouble concentrating, forgetfulness, or irritability – Good quality sleep is necessary for both physical and mental health. Without it, we are not our best selves.

Obstructive sleep apnea is the most commonly diagnosed sleep disorder in children. However, children often experience and respond to fatigue and poor sleep quality differently than adults. In a child, obstructive sleep apnea can manifest as:

  • Poor school performance
  • Sluggishness or sleepiness
  • Daytime mouth breathing and swallowing difficulty
  • Inward movement of the rib cage when inhaling
  • Unusual sleeping positions, such as sleeping on the hands and knees, or with the neck hyper-extended
  • Excessive sweating at night
  • Bedwetting

Long-Term Effects of Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea has been linked to a wide range of health problems. If left untreated, obstructive sleep apnea can cause or aggravate medical conditions such as:

  • Hypertension
  • Stroke
  • Arrhythmias
  • Cardiomyopathy (enlargement of the muscle tissue of the heart)
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Diabetes
  • Heart attacks

Also due to the sleepiness and fatigue sleep apnea often causes, those with untreated sleep apnea can find themselves in dangerous incidents while driving or working. For students, sleep apnea may lead to poor academic performance.

How a Dentist can Help with Obstructive Sleep Apnea

The dental treatment of sleep apnea goes by many names. You may hear terms like “dental sleep medicine,” “oral appliance therapy,” or “mandibular advancement devices.” Some people also confuse it with the term sleep dentistry, which usually means dental treatments performed under some form of sedation.

Recognition of Sleep Apnea Signs and Symptoms

During regular exams, your dentist will perform a thorough evaluation of the entire oral cavity, including the oropharynx (the opening from the mouth into the throat), they are in a key position to identify signs that a patient may have sleep apnea. Sleep apnea often causes problems like teeth clenching and/or grinding or acid reflux, which leave visible evidence on the teeth.

People afflicted with obstructive sleep apnea may show the following signs during a thorough oral evaluation:

  • A visibly small oropharynx (the opening from the mouth into the throat)
  • Shortened or flattened teeth from chronic teeth grinding
  • Small gaps between the upper front teeth, resulting from the lower jaw pushing forward reflexively in an attempt to open the airway
  • Acid erosion on the teeth, resulting from acid reflux

Dental Treatment of Sleep Apnea

Dentists are often instrumental in the discovery and treatment of mild to moderate sleep apnea because of their ability to offer oral appliance therapy. An oral appliance is an attractive and effective alternative to bulky positive airway pressure machines (like CPAP or BiPAP).

Most oral appliances treat obstructive sleep apnea through opening and stabilizing the upper airway. This improved airway is achieved by positioning the lower jaw closed and slightly forward.

It is essential that any oral appliance treatment of obstructive sleep apnea be performed only by a trained dentist. The appliances can make changes to the teeth, muscles and jaws over time, and close monitoring by your dentist is essential to successful, long-term treatment.

Sleep Apnea: Your Next Steps

If you believe that you or a loved one may suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, talk with your dentist first. They will work together with you and your physician to provide you with the best, most effective treatment. If your dentist has ever mentioned signs of a potential sleep breathing problem, it is important to explore your options for sleep apnea therapy today!