You may well be asking “What on earth has sleep apnea got to do with dentistry”? And “what is sleep apnea”? Well, sleep apnea is when you stop breathing for very short times during sleep and certain types of it can be treated by your dentist or oral surgeon, often resulting in snoring. It is also wise to have your doctor involved in the diagnosis and treatment of it.
So many people are not aware that they even have sleep apnea and when it is left untreated, it affects your well-being in ways you may not be aware of as it reduces the quality of your sleep and leads to daytime sleepiness which can lead to car accidents. Some of the other ways it can affect you are as follows:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Erectile dysfunction
There are three forms of sleep apnea:
1. Obstructive Sleep Apnea: A blockage in the airway such as too much tissue at the back of the tongue, throat or nose.
2. Central Sleep Apnea: The brain does not send proper signals to the muscles used for breathing.
3. Mixed Sleep Apnea: When both of the above exist at the same time.
Your dentist may be able to do some things to correct your sleep apnea. If it is obstructive, he/she can fit you with a dental appliance that you wear during the night; if it is caused by the tongue resting on your airway, he can supply a tongue-retaining device that can correct this one; and if it is because of incorrect positioning of your jaw, that can be treated with a device inserted in your mouth or strapped around your head to adjust your jaw.
All of these devices used by your dentist to correct your sleep apnea look like athletic mouth guards that can be removed as they are only worn at night. If the sleep apnea is due to excessive tissue on the tongue or in the throat, it may have to be surgically removed by an ear, nose and throat specialist but some dentists are trained in laser dentistry so they can also do this procedure for you.
Since it is impossible for you to be aware of what is happening when you’re asleep, it will probably be a friend or family member who will notice the sleep apnea first. The most common signs of it are:
- Gasping for air
- Choking during sleep
- Loud snoring
- Sudden awakening from sleep
- Headaches in the morning
- Waking with a sore throat
- Waking with dry mouth
- Memory problems
- Difficulty concentrating
- Frequent urination during the night
But remember! Just because you have one or more of the above symptoms does not necessarily mean that you have sleep apnea and seeing your dentist and/or doctor is the only way to know for sure. Following are just two of the things your dentist can do to help you know if you may have sleep apnea:
- Your dentist may refer you to a sleep specialist for a sleep test
- Your dentist or oral surgeon may evaluate your tongue to see if it moves freely or if it tends to block your airflow at night
Some things you can do on your own to cope with or reduce the occurrence of your sleep apnea are as follows:
- Maintain proper weight
- Eliminate alcohol, tobacco and sedatives
- Sleep on your side with a comfortable pillow
- If you are sleepy during the day, avoid driving or operating machinery