It’s common knowledge that a dentist can assist patients with a variety of dental problems such as plaque, tooth decay and gingivitis. What you may not know is that your dentist can also help you with breathing problems like sleep apnoea.
Sleep apnoea is a disorder where your breathing gets disrupted during sleep, causing you to wake up multiple times throughout the night. Though the snoring that often comes with this condition might seem like a minor annoyance, moderate to severe sleep apnoea can lead to serious health complications. Because of this, it’s essential that you seek the help of a medical professional if you’re experiencing breathing problems during sleep.
To help you understand this condition, we’re going to discuss the different types of sleep apnoea, the common symptoms, and the treatments that your dentist can provide.
What is sleep apnoea?
Sleep apnoea (or sleep apnea) is a sleep disorder that disrupts or stops one’s breathing during sleep. Such disruptions in breathing can occur multiple times throughout the night and can last for a few seconds to a few minutes. If untreated, sleep apnoea can cause health complications like heart failure, high blood pressure, type II diabetes and various liver problems.
There are two main types of sleep apnoea:
- Obstructive sleep apnoea
Obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) is the more common form of apnoea out of the two. OSA occurs when the muscles around your throat begin to relax during sleep. These throat muscles support your soft palate, your uvula, your tonsils and your tongue. When these muscles become too relaxed, your soft palate and the back of your tongue will partially or completely block your airways. This prevents you from getting enough oxygen into your bloodstream, leading to a carbon dioxide build-up in the body.
When your brain recognises that you can’t breathe, you will be momentarily woken up. Once you’re awake, your throat muscles will open your airways once again, allowing you to breathe normally. Usually, this awakening happens so quickly that you’ll likely won’t remember it in the morning.
This entire sequence can happen up to 30 times an hour throughout the night. Because of this, your body will not be able to reach the deep phases of sleep.
If you have OSA, your dentist should be able to give you advice and prescribe treatments. If not, they should be able to refer you to a health professional that can.
- Central sleep apnoea
Central sleep apnoea (CSA) occurs when your lower brainstem isn’t able to send the proper signals to your breathing muscles, making it difficult for your body to take in oxygen.
CSA can be caused by a variety of factors including heart failure, high-altitudes, Parkinson’s disease and taking opioid medication.
Because there are so many ways that CSA can come about, you should talk to a health professional as soon as you can if you’re experiencing symptoms. It’s important that you get diagnosed properly so that you can get the right treatment.
Since CSA is more concerned with the brain rather than oral anatomy, it’s likely that your dentist won’t be able to give you advice regarding this condition. Instead, you should talk to your GP about CSA.
Symptoms and risk factors
If you’re not sure if you have sleep apnea, there are a number of symptoms that you should look out for.
The most obvious symptom of sleep apnoea is the loud snoring caused by the obstructions in your airways. Snoring on its own, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that you have OSA or CSA. Because of this, it’s a good idea to see if your snoring is accompanied by other sleep apnoea symptoms. This includes:
- Constantly awakening in the middle of the night
- Waking up with a dry throat and mouth
- Experiencing a headache in the morning
- Drowsiness due to disrupted sleep
- Difficulty concentrating at work or at school
It’s also beneficial to know which individuals are more at risk of developing this condition. The factors that increase your risk of sleep apnoea are:
- Use of alcohol or other sedatives
- Nasal allergies
- Type II diabetes
Older men are the most likely to develop a form of sleep apnoea.
How your dentist can help with OSA?
- Positive airway pressure
According to Harvard Health Publishing, positive airway pressure (PAP) is the most effective way to treat OSA. It involves using a machine to pump air into your lungs via a mask. The constant flow of air prevents your tongue and your soft palate from collapsing into your airways while you sleep.
The mask, however, can become uncomfortable after a long period of time. Because of this, health professionals only recommended its use for people who have moderate to severe apnoea symptoms. If you only have minor symptoms, PAP may have little benefit to you.
- Mandibular advancement devices
Mandibular advancement devices (MAD) are plastic mouthguards that are designed to push your mandible (lower jaw) forward. The aim of MADs is to prevent the tongue from collapsing into your airways.
When you purchase a MAD, your dentist will take a mold of your teeth and then manufacture a guard based on that mold. If you want a cheaper alternative, you can also get a ‘boil and bite’ mouthguard. This is when you take a plastic device, boil it in hot water and then bite into it so that it forms around your teeth.
It’s also important to ask your dentist if they are a certified sleep medicine professional. If they’re not, they might not be authorised to create such devices. Non-certified dentists will have to send the mold of your teeth to a third-party manufacturer. This can end up costing you more money.
- Tongue-retaining devices
A tongue-retaining device is simply a plastic splint that holds your tongue forward, keeping it away from your airways.
However, since your mouth is going to be open while you sleep, this device will likely dry out your mouth throughout the course of the night.
These treatments are recommended for patients that are experiencing moderate to severe symptoms of sleep apnoea. Before you purchase any of these devices, visit your dentist and/or GP to get properly diagnosed. Those who are suffering from mere snoring or minor sleep apnoea symptoms may not gain any benefits by getting the treatments mentioned above.
If you’ve been diagnosed with OSA, Medicare may be able to cover the costs for PAP treatment and related devices. To get more information about costs and eligibility, it’s best to talk to your health care and insurance provider.