Everything You Need To Know About Sleep Apnea
Having trouble getting a good night’s sleep? Worried you or a loved one might have sleep apnea? It might be time to talk to your dentist. Yes, your dentist.
1) What exactly is sleep apnea?
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most prevalent sleep-related breathing disorder. OSA is caused by a physical blockage of the airway, preventing you from breathing in oxygen while you sleep. Your brain is telling you to breathe, the muscles that contract to bring in the air are working, but the oxygen cannot get into your lungs because the soft tissues of the upper airway collapse and seal off the throat.
2) Who can have OSA?
Over 25 million Americans suffer from OSA, and nearly 80% of them are unaware that they even have this condition. While there are risk factors for OSA (obesity, wide neck, narrow jaws, being a man) it can affect ANYONE. And it is not just a disease for adults. Around five percent of children also suffer from sleep-related breathing issues.
3) How does sleep apnea affect my health?
Many people think the only problem with OSA is that you are tired in the morning. That’s not true! When we sleep, our brain and body do a lot of important things, like regulate our hormones and clean out harmful toxins in the brain. Sleep is a very regulated and cyclical process that progresses in a very specific pattern. The problem with patients suffering from OSA is that every time they wake up with a sudden gasp to force air into their lungs, they essentially restart their clock on sleep. If your brain can never get through the necessary 4-6 sleep cycles it needs a night, it can start to take a toll on the rest of your health.
OSA can cause or worsen a host of other medical conditions, including high blood pressure, usually requiring multiple medications, type-2 diabetes, stroke, atrial fibrillation, obesity, depression, dementia, congestive heart failure, and heart attack.
Most alarmingly, untreated OSA raises the risk of early death by nearly 50%!
3) Are dentists qualified to treat OSA?
Your dentist may be the first healthcare provider to talk to you about OSA. During your routine check-up, they should be screening you for signs, symptoms, and risk factors for OSA. If you show signs of the disease, they should help guide you to the appropriate place to get diagnosed.
The most important thing to remember is that OSA is a medical condition and it must be diagnosed by a medical doctor. The American Medical Association, the American Dental Association, and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine all agree that giving a sleep test to diagnose OSA is considered practicing medicine. A dentist should NEVER give you a sleep test in order to determine if you have OSA, even if they have a doctor interpret it. If your dentist offers to do this, you should be very skeptical about whether they have your best medical interests at heart.
4) What can my dentist do to help?
The gold standard for treating OSA is CPAP therapy, but there are other treatment options available — which is good considering the compliance rate with CPAP is so low. After a medical doctor diagnoses you with a sleep-related breathing disorder, your dentist may be able to treat you with oral appliance therapy (OAT). Think of it like a mouthguard. The appliance holds your jaw forward as you sleep, and pulls the tongue off the back of the throat, thus opening up the airway to allow you to breath naturally. Studies show that patients are more likely to wear oral appliances, making them as effective as CPAP for mild and moderate cases of OSA. What’s even better news, these appliances are covered by most medical insurances, including Medicare. A qualified dentist can even bill your medical insurance for you.
OSA may sound scary, but successful treatment and maintenance of the disease are possible and often easy. Talk to your dentist today about helping you take the next steps toward getting a good night’s sleep.