Most people probably don’t think of turning to a dentist for help with snoring or sleep apnea. We think they should.
Granted, we’re biased. But these are problems involving the airway. The upper airway is dental territory. In fact, your mouth, neck, and jaws all can show signs of what’s called “sleep disordered breathing” (SDB). That’s kind of an awkward term, we know, but there’s yet to be a better one for describing breathing troubles during sleep.
Your dentist might even be the first person to alert you to the fact that you might have a problem or suggest a sleep test to formally diagnose the trouble.
For some, the root cause is their jaw or tongue falling backward as they relax into sleep, partially blocking their airway. Others may have excess tissue around the top of their windpipe, often due to obesity, that can similarly block the airway. The sound of snoring is just the sound of air being forced past a blockage, and it’s one of the most common symptoms of apnea.
What defines apnea is that you actually stop breathing for 10 seconds or longer, up to dozens of times every hour. Because oxygen isn’t optional – brain damage can happen within minutes of lacking oxygen – your body’s protective stress response kicks into gear with each episode. Stress hormones surge. Your heart rate quickens. You wake enough to start breathing again.
This happens over and over and over and over and over, throughout the night. Is it any wonder, then, that waking up tired and experiencing daytime fatigue are both common signs of sleep apnea?
But that’s just the start of obstructive sleep apnea’s consequences. The condition affects nearly every major system of your body. Health problems that science has linked to it include heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, stroke, metabolic syndrome, mood disorders, low sex drive, and cognitive decline.
Most seriously, sleep apnea raises your risk of early death. A lot. Almost 20% in moderate cases and nearly 50% in severe ones!
For years, the only real treatment available was CPAP, which stands for “continuous positive airway pressure.” It uses a stream of air to keep your airway open and clear through the night, and it’s been a literal lifesaver for many. But more than a few people find it awkward or uncomfortable to sleep tethered to a machine all night, and no device can be helpful if it’s not used.
That brings us to the other way in which a dentist well-trained in sleep medicine can help when it comes to SDB. We can provide an oral appliance custom fit to your mouth, designed to keep your airway clear by holding your jaw or tongue in a more optimal forward position. While there are many different types of appliances available, all are lightweight and extremely comfortable.
Most importantly, they’ve proven just as effective as CPAP and are now considered a first line treatment for mild and moderate obstructive sleep apnea. When provided in the context of the kind of holistic mouth/body healthcare that we provide, the results can be truly life-changing.