There is no underestimating the value of a good night’s sleep, and no one knows this better than a person who suffers from obstructive sleep apnea. Over 22 million Americans suffer from this disorder, according to the American Sleep Apnea Association, and, as a result of their condition suffer many serious health impacts. Patients with sleep apnea may turn to their doctors for treatment, but many are reaching out to their dentists for help, too. Dentists often play a major role in the diagnosis of obstructive sleep apnea, and also hold the key to successful treatment.
Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles of the throat and tongue become so relaxed during sleep that they collapse. This collapse blocks the patient’s airway, causing them to stop breathing for up to 10 seconds. For many patients, this situation repeats itself a number of times – with some patients having hundreds of breathing interruptions each and every night. In some obstructive sleep apnea patients the cause of this collapse has been linked to being overweight, but for many other sufferers, the cause is related to the position of their lower jaw.
If the position of a patient’s lower jaw is set far back, their tongue is also set far back in an unfavorable position. When the patient sleeps and subsequently is very relaxed, their tongue falls back, blocking their airway.
Beyond impacting the patient’s ability to get a good night’s sleep, obstructive sleep apnea has serious, life-threatening health impacts. Many sleep apnea sufferers develop high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, heart failure and diabetes as a result of their sleep condition. The risk of suffering a stroke or heart attack also increases. In some patients, sleep apnea has been linked to hypothyroidism, a condition also known as inactive thyroid, in which the thyroid gland stops producing enough thyroid hormone to operate the body efficiently. Obstructive sleep apnea can even shorten a patient’s life span by nearly 20 years.
Sleep apnea has other life-threatening side effects, as patients are often excessively fatigued throughout their day. As a result of this fatigue, many patients become depressed and are at a higher risk of being in a car accident or being hurt on the job. Stress level also increases, which further strains the heart and increases the risk of cardiac arrest.
Aside from feeling fatigued, there are several other indicators a patient may have sleep apnea. Snoring, choking, or gasping during sleep are all significant symptoms of sleep apnea. Dry mouth and sore throat are also telltale symptoms of the disorder and are of special interest to dentists. When these symptoms are communicated to dental professionals, they are usually the first clue that something more serious s going on with the patient.
Dr. Stefania Caracioni, D.D.S., L.V.I.F., is a Topeka, Kansas, dentist who specializes in dental sleep apnea treatments. “Many times, patients see their dentist more frequently than they see their regular doctors, so the dentist is the first to hear about their symptoms and the first to make the connection to obstructive sleep apnea,” says Caracioni.
Once the connection to obstructive sleep apnea has been established, Caracioni treats patients with by using noninvasive dental orthotic therapy. Dental orthotics are custom fit mouth appliances much like a retainer or sports mouth guard, worn only when the patient is sleeping. The appliance corrects the recessed position of the lower jaw and tongue to a more forward position in order to maintain an open airway during sleep.
There are other options for sleep apnea treatment such as surgery to remove the tonsils or adenoids. Another popular treatment is the continuous positive airway pressure machine, also known as a CPAP. The machine uses constant air pressure streamed into the patient’s nose to maintain the open airway. The air is delivered by a mask worn by the patient during sleep. While the CPAP does maintain the patient’s airway, many users complain that the machine is very loud when operating, which may keep them awake at night – which can be frustrating for already overtired sleep apnea sufferers. Other patients complain that the mask of the device is bulky and awkward, or that the machine makes them feel claustrophobic and anxious.
“The CPAP machine is large and loud,” says Caracioni. Many of her sleep apnea patients seeking dental orthotics come to her for treatment after struggling with the machine. “If a patient isn’t getting the sleep they need as a result of the condition, and finding no relief after the CPAP, then they’re frustrated. Dental orthotics can give patients the relief they’re looking for and also give them back a good night’s sleep.”