Sleep Apnea and Dentistry
Sleep apnea, the cessation of breathing during sleep, is a common problem that affects both adults and children. Certain types of sleep apnea can be treated by your dentist or oral surgeon. However your doctor may also be a part of the diagnosis and treatment.
The National Institutes of Health estimate that more than 12 million Americans have sleep apnea, most often undetected or misdiagnosed. In fact, conservative estimates suggest that only 16 percent of sleep apnea sufferers receive treatment.
Untreated sleep apnea affects your well-being and may contribute to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and erectile dysfunction, as well as to memory and concentration impairment. Since it reduces the quality of your sleep and contributes to daytime sleepiness, driving becomes more dangerous. In fact, sleep apnea is a leading cause of car accidents.
Types of Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea occurs in three forms:
- Obstructive sleep apnea is an airway blockage caused by a genetic abnormality such as excessive tissue in the back of the tongue, throat or nose.
- Central sleep apnea results when the brain fails to send proper signals to muscles responsible for breathing.
- Mixed sleep apnea (also called complex sleep apnea) is diagnosed when both central sleep apnea and obstructive sleep apnea are present.
Your dentist may be able to correct obstructive sleep apnea by fitting you with a dental appliance that is worn during the night. If it is caused by the tongue resting on the airway, a tongue-retaining device can correct the problem. If it is caused by the incorrect positioning of the jaw, it may be treated with a device inserted into the mouth or strapped around the head to adjust the jaw's positioning. Dental devices worn inside the mouth to treat sleep apnea look like athletic mouth guards. They are removable and worn only at night.
If caused by excess tissue growth on the tongue or in the back of the throat, the overgrowth may be surgically removed to resolve the blockage. Oral and maxillofacial surgeons and ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctors are experienced in performing such operations. However, dental professionals trained in laser dentistry also may perform the procedure.
Signs and Symptoms
Although you may be aware that your sleep is disturbed, more likely your symptoms will be noticed first by family members. The two most commonly identified sleep apnea symptoms are:
- Gasping for air or choking during sleep.
- Loud snoring.
The inability to breathe properly often results in sudden awakenings throughout the night that interrupt your sleep and prevent you from feeling refreshed throughout the day. As a result, you might find yourself struggling to stay awake during the day or feeling irritable and depressed. Other possible signs include:
- Painful and inexplicable headaches in the morning.
- Waking up with a sore throat or dry mouth.
- Memory problems and difficulty concentrating.
- Urinating frequently throughout the night.
It is important to note that the presence of one or more of these signs and symptoms does not confirm that you have sleep apnea. You may be a heavy snorer or urinate frequently throughout the night for other reasons. To be sure of your diagnosis, consult with your dentist or doctor to undergo professional evaluation.
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