Did you know that many sleep problems, like snoring and insomnia, are signs of a sleep disorder called sleep apnea? Untreated sleep apnea can wreak havoc on your quality of life, leading to daytime fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and serious long-term health problems.
Unfortunately, many people have trouble sleeping as a result of sleep apnea — roughly 22 million Americans, according to the American Sleep Apnea Association. While you may be inclined to visit your primary care doctor to get to the root of your sleep problems, there’s another provider you might be surprised to learn who can address issues that negatively impact sleep: your dentist!
Dental sleep medicine is an area of dentistry that uses oral appliance therapy to treat common sleep-related respiratory 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 good 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 the throat, tongue, and soft palate temporarily relax during sleep. This constricts or completely closes off the airways and stops breathing, which can last from a few seconds to minutes and can occur 30 or more times per hour.
Many people with OSA experience loud snoring, while others wake up breathless. Some people with sleep apnea have no idea what’s going on, and often it’s a sleep partner or roommate who catches their eye.
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 increased risk of OSA if you:
- have high blood pressure
- Drink alcohol regularly or use sedatives
- They have certain physical features, such as large tonsils or nasal polyps.
- Have a large neck circumference.
- Have overweight
Because sleep apnea causes extreme daytime fatigue, a person with OSA may also be at increased risk for poor work or school performance and car 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. This is why it is so important to seek professional care 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 during sleep, which would be reported by a roommate
- Gasping for air during sleep
- Waking up with a dry mouth or sore throat
- morning headaches
- TMJ symptoms, including teeth grinding
- Difficulty staying asleep
- Excessive daytime tiredness with no known cause
- Difficulty paying attention or concentrating while awake
- Mood changes, such as irritability and depression.
Sleep Apnea Treatment: A Dentist Can Help!
If you or your sleep partner suspect sleep apnea is the cause of your chronic sleepiness, it’s important to seek professional treatment as soon as possible. The standard treatment is usually CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure). This machine forces air through the oral and nasal passages to prevent the 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 affect your sleep and that of those sleeping nearby.
Thanks to 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 experience in sleep dentistry work together 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 design a custom removable oral appliance.
An oral appliance designed for sleep apnea fits much like a sports mouth guard or retainer and is individually shaped to guide your jaw forward while you sleep. This positions the soft tissues in the airway (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 uninterrupted, restful sleep and better energy during the day.
There are many benefits to using an oral sleep apnea device 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
- Provide a different option for patients who cannot tolerate CPAP
- Travel easier, work without electricity and is quieter
If you struggle with excessive fatigue during the day, even after a full night’s sleep, you may have obstructive sleep apnea. Since operating day in and day out without adequate rest can lead to serious, longer-term health problems, it’s important that you get to the root cause of your sleep problems 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.
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