How Do Dentists Treat Sleep Apnea?

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Sleep apnea can be a serious, even life-threatening condition, and affects many people. While treating sleep apnea can be a struggle, your dentist is one of the medical professionals who are on your team and can offer solutions.

Sleep Apnea Explained

Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder affecting both adults and children. It’s usually marked by loud snoring.  Its causes are many, but the condition always results in frequent, repeated interruptions in breathing during sleep — sometimes hundreds of times each night. That’s every bit as unhealthy as you might imagine it is, depriving your brain, heart and body of needed oxygen at night. This lack of oxygen during the body’s main rest and repair time leads to skyrocketing risks for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other illnesses. It also causes sleep apnea patients to struggle with poor sleep, and often results in performance difficulties at work or school, or puts sufferers at risk for vehicle accidents due to fatigue. 

There are two forms of sleep apnea, with the most common being obstructive sleep apnea. This is also, fortunately, the kind a dentist can help treat. It’s caused by a blockage of the airway during sleep for various reasons. Often, the blockage is the result of the soft tissue in the back of the throat collapsing and restricting air. During sleep, it’s common for the tongue to fall, relaxed, against the soft palate at the back of the mouth, but in sleep apnea, the soft palate and uvula give way when this happens and close the airway to proper breathing. 

The other form is called central sleep apnea, and doesn’t involve a blocked airway. Instead, the part of the brain that controls respiration doesn’t work properly, and fails to signal the muscles of the airway and throat to continue breathing while the person is asleep. This type of sleep apnea isn’t something your dentist can help with, but a good sleep medicine specialist can offer treatment options instead.

Sleep apnea’s causes are not all well-known, but risk factors include sleeping on your back, reaching middle age, being male, and being overweight. However, people with none of these characteristics such as children also can have the condition. Other causes may be related medical conditions, obesity, condition of the tonsils, and nasal obstruction from sinus and other problems.  The latest information about this has to do with the interruption of the proper formation of the mouth structures like a wide enough palate and floor of the mouth and proper positions forward of the upper and lower jaws. Even routine extractions and orthodontics for crowded teeth have contributed to sleep apnea because of the pulling back of the teeth closes off the airway especially as people age.   

Sleep Apnea Treatment

In dentistry, we treat sleep apnea in several different ways, but the most used are oral appliances made to be worn while you sleep. These are prescribed for both snoring problems and for sleep apnea. Oral appliances for sleep apnea vary widely, but the one Dr. McCormick uses to treat patients is one that he’s chosen for its effectiveness, comfort and ease of use. The specific treatment our office uses is called the Somnodent Oral Sleep Appliance. It’s tolerated well by patients who can’t or prefer not to use a CPAP machine for sleep apnea.

Somnodent looks something like an athletic mouth guard, made up of two dental plates that are custom made for each patient’s mouth. It’s worn each night while sleeping. Some oral sleep apnea appliances are only made to hold the airway open at night, similar to the way a CPAP machine keeps the airway open with air pressure. Somnodent is a more proactive treatment for sleep apnea, and uses a gradual adjustment process, called mandibular advancement, to slowly and painlessly move the patient’s lower jaw forward while they’re wearing the appliance. The end result is a more open airway and stronger soft palate support. It’s fine to use the oral appliance with other treatments for sleep apnea, and the movement of the jaw naturally reverts to normal after the appliance is removed, avoiding any issues with the alignment of the patient’s bite.

Patients usually find that Somnodent appliances are comfortable, thanks to its custom fit and advanced materials. It doesn’t keep you from opening and closing your mouth normally, so you can talk and drink with the appliance in position if needed. People with mild to moderate obstructive sleep apnea can benefit most from its use, but if you have severe OSA and can’t use other possible treatments, you also should talk to Dr. McCormick and your sleep physician about whether it can help.

What to Expect

Before recommending the Somnodent appliance or any sleep apnea treatment, Dr. McCormick will give you a thorough dental examination, checking your teeth, mouth, tongue and airway. Sometimes, X-rays are part of the process to be sure your oral health is sufficient to use the appliance. Certain dental conditions, like loose teeth, may mean the device won’t work as well or may have unwanted dental effects. 

Each patient’s mouth is measured and molds are taken, from which a custom appliance is created. Once it’s been made and arrives at our office, Dr. McCormick will place it for the first time, and demonstrate how to insert and remove it at home. With proper care, oral sleep apnea appliances typically last for several years of use. They’re portable, unlike many CPAP machines, discreet, and easy to clean and use.

If you’re seeking better solutions for snoring or sleep apnea, talk to Dr. McCormick about possible treatment today. Untreated sleep apnea has serious health effects, and getting good sleep has many benefits.

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