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What Is Sleep Apnea?

September 21st, 2022

Sleep apnea is a serious condition that impacts about 1 in 5 adults in the United States. Unfortunately, it’s estimated that 90% of adults with sleep apnea don’t even know it. There are treatments available to help you get better sleep and get enough oxygen throughout the night to avoid potential side effects like a heart attack or stroke. What is sleep apnea, and how can your dentist help?

Sleep Apnea 101

Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder. Patients with sleep apnea will stop breathing throughout the night. While you might only stop breathing for a second or two, this is incredibly dangerous and is a major health hazard. Three types of sleep apnea are present in patients with the diagnosis:

  1. Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type. This form occurs when your throat muscles relax during sleep and you briefly stop breathing. 
  2. Central sleep apnea happens if your brain is not properly communicating with your muscles. 
  3. Complex sleep apnea syndrome is the rarest of the three and happens when a patient is dealing with both other forms (obstructive and central). 

What Are the Symptoms?

The first reason why many patients visit a dentist with sleep apnea concerns is that they are getting enough sleep but still not feeling rested. Some of the other signs that you might notice include:

  • Snoring loudly or louder than you used to in the past
  • Headache when you wake up 
  • A bed partner noticing that you stop breathing while you sleep or appear to be struggling to get enough air
  • Dry mouth in the morning
  • Insomnia
  • Feeling tired even after getting 8 hours of sleep
  • Trouble paying attention 
  • Irritability or mood swings

Because many of these are also symptoms of other sleep issues and health problems, it’s critical to seek help from your doctor as soon as possible. It’s also important to know that many of these problems are noticed by a bed partner before the patient, so always take the concerns of your loved ones seriously if they notice you are sleeping strangely. There are a number of ways to diagnose the problem and come up with the right treatment.

What Happens If You Don’t Get Treated?

There are many severe consequences of untreated sleep apnea. Some of the most common health problems that you might experience include:

  • Hypertension
  • Diabetes
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Stroke
  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Heart attacks
  • Arrhythmia
  • And more

Because this condition is also associated with low-quality slumber, it also increases your risk of experiencing an accident when driving or on the job.

What Can Help?

The most widely used treatment for obstructive sleep apnea is a continuous positive airway pressure machine (CPAP machine). CPAP machines take the air in your bedroom and pressurize it. Next, the air is pushed through tubes and into a mask on your face. Because it’s supplying you with a steady flow of air, it can help prevent your tongue and uvula from moving into your airway and stopping you from breathing properly.

In other cases, oral appliance therapy can be used. These devices are created with the help of a dentist, and they help move your mouth into a position that stops your tongue from potentially blocking the throat. These oral appliances are customized to your specific mouth, so an impression will be made of your teeth. The oral device will then be fit to your mouth and refit as needed in the future.

Once you have determined what device you want to use, it’s a good idea to have another sleep test performed. This will confirm that the problem has been addressed so you can sleep without worry. If there are additional modifications needed, your dentist can work with your other medical team to find a great solution that helps you breathe easier.

How Can Your Dentist Help?

Your dentist can screen you for sleep apnea during your regular appointment using the Epworth Sleepiness Scale and other screenings. Additionally, your dentist can help you find the right appliance to assist with getting a better night of sleep, like a CPAP. Dentists can also custom-fit you for an oral appliance that will increase the chances of your airway staying open throughout the night.

It also might surprise you to know that those who have their sleep apnea properly treated often have better oral health. Many patients with untreated apnea sleep with their mouths open. This can lead to dry mouth, which is a very serious problem. A dry mouth can cause faster plaque accumulation, which means that you will also develop more tooth decay and have a higher risk of cavities and gum disease. By treating your sleep apnea, you also protect your smile.

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