Dental technology and research have expanded the way dental professionals play a role in overall bodily wellness. Naturally, oral hygiene is essential for maintaining the teeth and gums, but the mouth is also a pathway for everything else that enters the body, both good and bad. While dentists typically work to maintain and restore the teeth and gums, they’re also beginning to make an impact when it comes to sleep disorders.
Snoring is no longer just an annoying habit that keeps people and their significant others up at night (sometimes even the whole house)! It’s a legitimate medical condition that can lead to severe health issues if not addressed. Over the past decade or so, sleep medicine has made significant advancements and also included dental professionals in the plight to help change people’s lives through prevention, diagnostics, and solutions for various sleep disorders.
What is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?
Also known as OSA, obstructive sleep apnea is a disorder that prevents proper breathing during sleep. It occurs when the muscles in the throat relax too much, allowing the soft tissues in the back of the airway to collapse and prevent oxygen intake. This is what happens when a person snores, but the lasting effects are much more far-reaching and could potentially become life-threatening. Along with rarely ever achieving a full night’s rest, irritability, fatigue, insomnia, and memory problems are all signs that sleep apnea is present.
Risks of OSA
Obstructive Sleep Apnea has quickly become one of the most diagnosed sleeping disorders among Americans. OSA carries the risk of impotence, diabetes, depression and increases the risk for heart disease by almost three times, along with heart attack or stroke. This disorder has quickly gained the nickname of being one of the “silent killers” affecting millions of Americans, or about 25% of the population, in which the majority of cases go undiagnosed.
How Dentists can Help
Dental professionals spend most of their workdays peering into their patient’s mouths, making sure all things look under control and healthy, so they can also aid in spotting the signs of obstructive sleep apnea in their patients, leading to an eventual diagnosis with the collaboration of a doctor or sleep specialist. This works particularly well since Americans are more likely to see their dentist than their general practitioner or family doctor, leading to a diagnosis much sooner, potentially preventing a co-occurring diagnosis of another disease spurred by OSA.
Most recently, many dental professionals have taken an interest in specializing in a new field called Dental Sleep Medicine, or DSM. While these specialists are still in the early phases of becoming recognized for their work, they’re already helping thousands of people discover the cause of many of their health issues while also making it easier for patients to obtain insurance coverage to seek out this type of specialized dentistry without it becoming cost inhibitive.
Dentists will typically look for signs like enlarged tongue, reports of high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, enlarged tonsils, obesity, or GERD. Upon reviewing the patient’s health history, there are also discussions concerning snoring, headaches, and general mood changes or sleepiness during the day. This process serves as an excellent screening process, after which patients can be referred to a sleep center to conduct further examinations and studies on the patient.
Main Signs of OSA
- Enlarged neck circumference
- BMI greater than 30
- Scalloped tongue
- Long lower face
- Retrognathic profile
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Consistent headaches
- Loud or irregular snoring
- Daytime sleepiness
Initially, those with diagnosed obstructive sleep apnea are prescribed a C-PAP machine, also known as continuous positive airway pressure therapy. It consists of a facemask connected with tubing to a running machine that pumps air into the patient’s lungs as they sleep. While effective, many patients forego this treatment for OSA because they find it uncomfortable and difficult to sleep while wearing the device. About 25%-50% of CPAP patients do not remain compliant with their treatment.
Dentists can help patients who are having trouble with CPAP with the use of dental appliances that patients wear at night while they sleep. These retainers help position the tongue properly, allowing the lower jaw to rest in a more natural position for optimal air intake. These appliances are best for those with mild to moderate OSA, but even those with severe cases can potentially find success with them.
Many people don’t fully realize how much OSA can affect every part of life. There have been cases where people mistakenly believe they are suffering from mood disorders and seek psychiatric help when the root of their issues stemmed from never have a restful night’s sleep. There are also factors that affect partners who share a room or bed, allowing OSA not only to affect the person with the condition but their significant other as well, ruining two people’s night’s sleep. Many people with OSA also suffer from obesity and its related issues like hypertension and diabetes; however, without being able to sleep at night, many patients are simply too tired and groggy to focus on a diet regimen or fitness routine to improve their health. Overall, a healthy body can restore itself at night in preparation for the day to come; those with OSA can never fully achieve feeling well-rested and often suffer without knowing why.
Seeking a dental professional’s help is a great way to address potential obstructive sleep apnea and get the wheels in motion towards a diagnosis. Dentists can also offer an effective non-invasive treatment using an oral appliance that has improved many patients’ lives suffering from mild to moderate OSA. The benefits of treating obstructive sleep apnea are numerous. Still, most importantly, patients will be able to tackle other health issues they may be suffering once they’re able to achieve the deep restorative sleep their bodies have been deprived of for so long.