Did you know that many sleep problems, such as snoring and insomnia, are signs of a sleep disorder called sleep apnea? Untreated sleep apnea can affect your quality of life, causing daytime fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and serious long-term health problems.
Unfortunately, many people have trouble sleeping because of sleep apnea — about 22 million Americans, according to the American Sleep Apnea Association. While you may be inclined to see your primary care physician to get to the root of your sleep issues, there’s another provider you might be surprised to learn who can address issues that negatively affect sleep: your dentist!
Sleep dentistry is a field of dentistry that uses oral appliance therapy to treat common sleep-disordered breathing, including sleep apnea. The following guide will help you better understand these common sleep-related issues and how your dentist can help you get a good night’s sleep once and for all.
What is obstructive sleep apnea?
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is one of the most common types of sleep apnea. This condition occurs when the muscles responsible for supporting the throat, tongue, and soft palate temporarily relax during sleep. This restricts or completely closes your airway and stops your breathing, which can last anywhere from seconds to minutes and can happen 30 or more times per hour.
Many people with OSA suffer from loud snoring, while others wake up gasping for air. Some people with sleep apnea have no idea it’s happening, and it’s often a sleep partner or roommate who tells them about it.
Do I have sleep apnea?
You can suffer from sleep apnea at any age, although the risk tends to increase with age. You may also be at higher risk for OSA if you:
- Have high blood pressure
- Regularly drinking alcohol or using sedatives
- Have certain physical traits, such as large tonsils or nasal polyps
- Have a big neckline
- are overweight
Since sleep apnea causes extreme fatigue during the day, a person with OSA may also be at increased risk of poor performance at work or school and road accidents.
Sleep apnea can be difficult to diagnose on your own, and it’s easy to blame fatigue, headaches, irritability, or another underlying cause. This is why it is so important to consult a professional if you are constantly tired without a clear explanation.
Other common warning signs of sleep apnea include one or more of the following:
- Frequent and loud snoring
- Episodes in which you stop breathing while sleeping that would be reported by a roommate
- Out of breath while sleeping
- Waking up with a dry mouth or sore throat
- morning headache
- TMJ symptoms including teeth grinding
- Difficulty staying asleep
- Excessive daytime fatigue without known cause
- Difficulty paying attention or concentrating while awake
- Mood changes, such as irritability and depression
Treating sleep apnea: a dentist can help you!
If you or your sleep partner suspect that sleep apnea is the cause of your chronic sleepiness, it’s important that you seek professional treatment as soon as possible. Generally, the standard treatment is CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure). This machine forces air through the oral and nasal passages to prevent soft tissues from collapsing. Unfortunately, not all patients tolerate CPAP well, and the machines can be noisy, bulky, and uncomfortable, which can negatively impact your sleep as well as those sleeping nearby.
Through sleep dentistry, oral appliance therapy is available as a less intrusive alternative for the treatment of sleep apnea. A sleep specialist and a dentist with expertise in sleep dentistry work together to determine if this type of treatment is best for the patient. If the patient is considered a good candidate, a specially trained sleep dentist can work closely with the individual to custom design a removable oral appliance.
An oral appliance designed for sleep apnea fits much like a mouth guard or sports retainer and is individually designed to guide the jaw forward during sleep. This positions the soft tissues in the airways (tongue, soft palate, tonsils and back of the mouth) so that the flow of oxygen throughout the body is not restricted. With a clear airway, a person with sleep apnea can finally enjoy restful, uninterrupted sleep and better energy during the day.
Using an oral appliance for sleep apnea has many advantages over CPAP. Oral appliance therapy can:
- Improve symptoms of sleep apnea, including daytime fatigue, irritability, and trouble concentrating
- Reduce or eliminate loud and frequent snoring
- Offer a different option for patients who cannot tolerate CPAP
- Travel easier, work without electricity and quieter
If you struggle with excessive daytime fatigue, even after a full night’s sleep, you may have obstructive sleep apnea. Since functioning day in and day out without enough rest can lead to serious, longer-term health issues, it’s important that you address the root cause of your sleep issues as soon as possible. With the help of a sleep specialist and a qualified sleep dentist, you can determine if you have sleep apnea and learn more about treatment options, including oral appliance therapy.