Sleep Apnea and Dentistry

Doctor Scarpitti

When most people visit their dentist they don’t typically think of having a conversation with them about their sleep. However, did you know that dentists can help treat a sleep condition known as sleep apnea? While it may seem unconventional, sleep dentistry is becoming a major part of improving quality of life for our patients. So what exactly is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a diagnosis given by a certified sleep physician in which people repeatedly stop and start breathing during sleep. It can be a potentially life threatening condition as it can affect weight gain, increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and can also be very serious for people who are constantly fatigued, especially while operating a motor vehicle.

So how do we as dentists help treat sleep apnea? With the help of a board certified sleep physician we can screen patients and refer them to have a sleep study performed. The sleep study is ordered by the physician to determine if a patient has obstructive sleep apnea or central sleep apnea. Depending upon the diagnosis and treatment recommendations by the sleep physician, the dentists can help treat obstructive sleep apnea with an intraoral appliance.

Typically, the first line of defense to treat obstructive sleep apnea is the CPAP machine. This machine works by creating a constant flow of air to open a patients airway and allow for unobstructed breathing. If you have previously been diagnosed with OSA and are currently using but struggling with the CPAP, a viable alternative is also an intraoral appliance made by a dentist.

An intraoral appliance is different from the CPAP machine in a couple of ways. It works by moving the lower jaw forward in order to manually open the airway. One analogy I like to give my patients is to think of a garden hose with a kink in it. The hose would be the airway, the water the air, and the kink the obstruction preventing air/water flow. The CPAP works the same way as increasing the water pressure in the hose by opening up the water faucet which then increases flow to overcome the kink/obstruction. The intraoral appliance works manually in this analogy. It would be as if you grabbed the hose and manually relieved the kink in the hose to increase flow and allow for the passage of water.

A few common signs/symptoms of sleep apnea:

  • Frequent waking during the night
  • Dry mouth, grinding of the teeth known as bruxism
  • Feeling groggy upon waking
  • Consistently tired through out the day
  • Trouble concentrating at work/school
  • Snoring
  • Increased weight gain

If you suspect you have sleep apnea consider seeing your dentist or family practice physician for a screening and referral to the appropriate sleep physician. See this atricle from the Mayo Clinic for more information.

Dr. S