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 wreak havoc on your quality of life, causing daytime fatigue, difficulty concentrating and serious, long-term health problems.
Unfortunately, many people have difficulty sleeping as a result of sleep apnea — an estimated 22 million Americans, according to American Sleep Apnea Association. While you may be inclined to visit your primary care physician to get to the root of your sleep issues, there’s another provider you may be surprised to learn can address the problems that adversely affect sleep — your dentist!
Dental sleep medicine is an area of dentistry that utilizes oral appliance therapy to treat common sleep-disordered breathing conditions, 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 restful night’s sleep once and for all.
What Is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?
One of the most common types of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). This condition occurs when the muscles responsible for supporting your throat, tongue and soft palate relax temporarily during sleep. This restricts or completely closes off your airway and stops your breathing, which can last from a few seconds to minutes and may occur 30 or more times per hour.
Many people with OSA experience loud snoring, while others wake up gasping for air. Some people with sleep apnea have no idea that it is happening, and it is often a sleep partner or roommate that brings it to their attention.
Do I Have Sleep Apnea?
You can have sleep apnea at any age, although the risk tends to increase as you get older. You may also be at a higher risk for OSA if you:
- Have high blood pressure
- Regularly drink alcohol or use sedatives
- Have certain physical traits, like large tonsils or nasal polyps
- Have a large neck circumference
- Are overweight
Because sleep apnea causes extreme fatigue during the day, a person with OSA may also be at a heightened risk for poor work or academic performance and motor vehicle accidents.
Sleep apnea can be difficult to diagnose on your own, and it’s easy to blame fatigue, headaches, irritability or some other underlying cause. That’s why it’s so important to seek professional care if you’re consistently tired without a clear explanation.
Other common warning signs of sleep apnea include one or more of the following:
- Frequent, loud snoring
- Episodes in which you stop breathing during sleep, which would be reported by a roommate
- Gasping for air during sleep
- Waking with a dry mouth or sore throat
- Morning headaches
- TMJ symptoms, including teeth grinding
- Difficulty staying asleep
- Excessive daytime tiredness without any known cause
- Difficulty paying attention or focusing while awake
- Mood changes, such as irritability and depression
Treating Sleep Apnea — A Dentist Can Help!
If you or your sleep partner suspects that sleep apnea is the cause of your chronic sleepiness, it is important that you seek professional treatment sooner rather than later. Typically, standard treatment is CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure). This machine forces air through the oral and nasal passages to keep soft tissues from collapsing. Unfortunately, not all patients tolerate CPAP well, and the machines can be noisy, bulky and uncomfortable — all of which can negatively impact your sleep as well as those sleeping nearby.
Thanks to sleep dentistry, oral appliance therapy is available as a less intrusive alternative for sleep apnea treatment. A sleep specialist and dentist with expertise in sleep dentistry work jointly to determine if this type of treatment is best for the patient. If the patient is deemed 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 sports mouthguard or retainer and is individually shaped to guide the jaw forward while sleeping. This positions the soft tissues in the airways (tongue, soft palate, tonsils and the back of the mouth) so that the flow of oxygen throughout the body is not restricted. With an unobstructed airway, a person with sleep apnea can finally experience restful, uninterrupted sleep and improved energy during the day.
There are many benefits to using an oral appliance for sleep apnea over CPAP. Oral appliance therapy can:
- Improve symptoms of sleep apnea, including daytime fatigue, irritability and concentration issues
- Reduce or eliminate loud, frequent snoring
- Provide a different option for patients who cannot tolerate CPAP
- Travel easier, work without electricity and is quieter
If you struggle with excessive daytime fatigue, even after a full night of sleep, it’s possible that you have obstructive sleep apnea. Since operating day after day without enough rest can result in more long-term, serious health problems, it is important that you get to 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 options for treatment, including oral appliance therapy.