Sleep is an essential function for the human body. It revives our overall being, keeps us healthy, and allows us to think clearly. A good night’s rest also can strengthen the immune system, aid in proper digestion and detoxification, maintain hormonal balances, and support cognitive health.
When there is an inadequate amount of sleep, the brain can’t function properly. Over time, this can lead to significant health risks.
That’s why sleep apnea is so detrimental to our health. Sleep apnea is a medical condition causing difficulty breathing in the middle of sleep, leading to restless nights and sleep deprivation.
There are three types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), central sleep apnea, and complex sleep apnea. According to the ADA, OSA is the most prevalent form of sleep apnea. It accounts for more than 80% of sleep-disorder breathing cases in the United States.
OSA happens when there is a persistent narrowing or collapse of the upper airway during sleep. It is characterized by at least five or more events per night, yet how it presents is unique to each patient. Pauses in breathing can last for a few seconds to minutes. Further, the pauses can occur 30 or more times per hour.
Sleep apnea is becoming increasingly common. In fact, 22 million adult Americans live with sleep apnea. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and include snoring loudly, waking up gasping for air, daytime sleepiness, and feeling distressed from a lack of sleep.
In addition to the mental and physical fatigue, sleep apnea has a direct correlation to dental health. Sleep apnea can lead to dry mouth, tooth decay, grinding, gingivitis, and more. High-quality sleep, on the other hand, can result in better health, reduced bad breath and a lessened chance of gum disease.
That’s why it’s important to have dentists work with patients experiencing sleep apnea.
Understanding the Potential Signs of Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea is one of the most common medical conditions in the United States. Yet 80% of moderate to severe cases go undiagnosed, posing a potential risk for the patient.
An easy way to look for the warning signs of sleep apnea is to introduce sleep into the equation early in your standard health history intake. Ask patients about their sleep, such as if they’re feeling rested or struggling with insomnia.
Sleep apnea also affects several oral health areas.
For example, it can lead to tooth grinding. Dentists can look for worn tooth surfaces, potential breakage, and even a spike in cavities caused by increased bacteria. The Journal of Oral & Facial Pain and Headache reports that up to 31% of adults are affected by tooth grinding, and at least one fourth of them potentially also have sleep apnea.
Additionally, sleep apnea can lead to redness in the throat due to snoring, dry mouth generally caused by mouth breathing, and constant headaches. It can cause periodontal disease as well. In certain cases, periodontal disease is a sign of a significant sleep apnea problem, especially given the presence of excessive decay.
Sleep apnea can cause temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders too, which can lead to jaw pain, problems chewing, grinding or clicking in the joint, or lockjaw.
Dentists As the First Line of Defense
Dentists are key to helping diagnose sleep apnea. Regular oral clinical examinations have proven to be a useful way to screen patients for potential risk factors related to sleep apnea.
In fact, research indicates that patients are 24.1% more likely to visit their dentists regularly compared to annual physician examinations. Dentists and dental hygienists, then, stand poised to detect potential health conditions, diseases, and risk.
Understanding the warning signs of sleep disorders like sleep apnea is critical. According to the ADA, dentists can look for the common features while reviewing a patient’s health history and conducting routine exams, including a large tongue or tonsils, mandibular retrognathia or micrognathia, a large neck circumference, nocturnal choking or gasping, obesity, and loud or irregular snoring.
In addition to dental treatments to correct and repair problems with the teeth or mouth caused by sleep apnea, dentists also can be the first line in a proper diagnosis. If a patient presents with these signs, a referral can be made to a primary care physician or sleep specialist for further evaluation.
Patient education also is vital when it comes to sleep apnea. Dentists can educate patients about the potential risk factors, ensuing health conditions, and even prospective treatment options should an official diagnosis occur. All this will lead to more informed patients with the ability to take control of their health.
Utilizing Sleep Apnea Tools
Aside from routine examinations, dentists are also critical in the decision to introduce sleep apnea tools and what those tools are. After official diagnosis of sleep apnea by a primary care physician or sleep specialist, dentists can aid in a patient’s treatment plan. They also can determine the best type of solution to help patients control their sleep apnea.
Typically, the best method to use for sleep apnea is called positive airway pressure (PAP) therapy. Dentists can be the first line of defense in introducing a patient to a variety of PAP therapy options.
Many who suffer from sleep apnea choose to use a CPAP machine, which allows the patient to breathe properly at night by changing the air pressure. Specially designed CPAP pillows can also provide proper ergonomic support and comfort to enable proper body positioning without any interfering with sleep apnea equipment or therapy.
Dentists are among the medical professionals who have the authority to write a prescription for a CPAP machine, as well as the ability to help patients treat their sleep apnea. Plus, dentists are ideally positioned to identify key risk factors during standard oral examinations.
Studies have also shown that oral devices and oral pressure therapy can be as effective in treating mild sleep apnea cases. Oral pressure therapy helps the tongue and palate stay in place and not block the airway. Oral devices or appliances, such as a sleep apnea mouth guard, move the tongue and lower jaw, allowing increased size in the upper airway.
Consulting with your dentist is critical when it comes to oral appliance therapy. Mouth guards must be custom-made to suit the needs of each patient and provided by a qualified dentist. Dental practitioners can help design and custom-fit the right mouth guard for their patients, which will allow for an open, unhindered airway.
It is important to note that there are specific requirements when it comes to dentists and oral appliance therapy. According to the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine, training in oral appliance therapy is often uncommon in dental schools. Dentists interested in this qualification should seek special training and continuing education in dental sleep medicine to offer the best possible care to their patients.
Collaborating for the Health of the Patient
While dentists cannot officially diagnose sleep apnea, they can play a critical role in its detection, education, diagnosis, and prevention. A collaborative approach with a cross-functional medical team, including a sleep lab, sleep doctors, pulmonologists, and primary care physicians, is essential to a long-term care plan for sleep apnea.
It’s important to focus on early warning signs and continually talk to patients about the dangers of sleep apnea and its potential solutions. That way, dentists can help not only prevent potential oral issues, but also give patients a better quality of life.
Ms. Fuhrman is the owner of Sleeplay and its sister brand, American Homecare Equipment Inc. Her background in providing patients, doctors, and other medical professionals with quality medical devices and accessories stems from over 30 years of experience in the home medical equipment industry. With specialties ranging from sleep apnea to respiratory devices to personal protective equipment (PPE), her expertise is adaptable across international industries. She is responsible for the overall vision of the two brands and works closely with all departments to ensure customer satisfaction and innovation stay at the forefront of each of the organizations.