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 impair your quality of life, causing daytime tiredness, difficulty concentrating and serious long-term health problems.
Unfortunately, many people experience sleep difficulties as a result of sleep apnea – an estimated 22 million Americans, according to the American Sleep Apnea Association. While you may be inclined to visit your primary care physician to get to the root of your sleep problems, there is another provider who may surprise you to learn that they can treat sleep-affecting problems – your dentist!
Dental sleep medicine is a field of dentistry that uses 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 problems and how your dentist can help you get a good night's sleep forever.
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 temporarily relax during sleep. This restricts or completely closes 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 snore loudly, while others wake up gasping for breath. Some people with sleep apnea don't know it's happening, and it's often their bedmate or roommate who notices it.
Do I Have Sleep Apnea?
You can get sleep apnea at any age, although the risk tends to increase with age. You may also be at increased risk of developing OSA if you:
- Have high blood pressure
- Regularly drink alcohol or use sedatives
- Have certain physical features, such as large tonsils or nasal polyps
- Has a large neck circumference
Because sleep apnea causes extreme fatigue during the day, people with OSA are also at increased risk of poor job 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 treatment if you constantly feel tired for no apparent reason.
Other common warning signs of sleep apnea include one or more of the following:
- Often snoring loudly
- Episodes where you stop breathing in your sleep, which roommates will report
- Gasping during sleep
- Waking up with a dry mouth or sore throat
- Headache in the morning
- TMJ symptoms, including grinding of teeth
- Difficulty staying asleep
- Excessive fatigue during the day without a known cause
- Difficulty paying attention or focusing when awake
- Mood changes, such as irritability and depression
Treating Sleep Apnea — A Dentist Can Help!
If you or your sleeping partner suspects that sleep apnea is the cause of your chronic sleepiness, it is important that you seek professional treatment sooner rather than later. Usually, the standard treatment is CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure). This machine forces air through the mouth and nose passages to keep soft tissues from collapsing. Unfortunately, not all patients tolerate CPAP well, and the machine can be noisy, bulky, and uncomfortable — all of which can negatively affect your sleep as well as that of those who sleep near it.
Thanks to sleep dentistry, oral appliance therapy is available as a less intrusive alternative to the treatment of sleep apnea. A sleep specialist and dentists with expertise in sleep dentistry work together to determine whether this type of treatment is best for the patient. If the patient is considered a good candidate, a specially trained sleep dentist can work with the individual to design their own removable oral appliance.
Oral appliances designed for sleep apnea fit snugly into mouth guards or sports restraints and are individually shaped to guide the jaw forward during sleep. 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 impeded. With an unobstructed airway, people with sleep apnea can finally experience deep, uninterrupted sleep and increased energy during the day.
There are many benefits of using an oral appliance for sleep apnea over CPAP. Oral appliance therapy can:
- Improve sleep apnea symptoms, including daytime fatigue, irritability, and problems concentrating
- Reduce or eliminate loud and frequent snoring
- Provide different options 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 operating day after day without adequate rest can lead to more serious long-term health problems, it is important that you get to the root cause of your sleep problems as soon as possible. With the help of a qualified sleep specialist and sleep dentist, you can determine if you have sleep apnea and learn more about treatment options, including oral appliance therapy.