Longtime readers of this blog know that dentists can help you with so much more than cavities and gum disease; your dentist can help you detect and control diabetes, mouth cancer, and a host of other illnesses. One such illness is sleep apnea. There is a well-established connection between dentistry and sleep apnea but before we dive into it, it’s important to understand what sleep apnea is.
Normally, when you’re asleep, you continue to breathe without obstruction. People with sleep apnea, however, have difficulty breathing during the night. There are two forms of sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea, the most common form, occurs when muscles in the back of your throat relax – this makes it so that your airway collapses temporarily when you breathe in. Your brain then detects that you’re not getting enough air and rouses you. You’ll be awakened for so little time that you won’t remember waking up, but it can happen dozens, or even hundreds of times a night – that really disrupts your sleep. Central sleep apnea, on the other hand, occurs when your brain doesn’t send signals to your breathing muscles while you’re asleep. Occasionally, some people will get a complex combination of both.
Dentists can help you treat obstructive sleep apnea in a couple of ways. The first is that your dentist may be able to identify risk factors; things that make it more likely you have or could develop sleep apnea. That’s because obstructive sleep apnea can be caused by facial features that create a narrow airway. While many dentists can spot these risk factors, they cannot diagnose the sleep apnea themselves; you’ll have to go to a physician who specializes in sleep research and have them evaluate you for sleep apnea.
Secondly, if you’ve been diagnosed with sleep apnea, dentists have created a remarkable solution to the problem. Sleep apnea occurs because your muscles loosen but now your dentist can create a device that you put in your mouth to tighten those muscles. It’s called a mandibular advancement splint and it works by moving your lower jaw forward slightly. This causes your upper airway muscles to tighten, allowing you to breathe without them collapsing. There’s strong evidence that these devices improve the symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea.
Central sleep apnea, on the other hand, is caused by a lack of signals from your brain so it’s much harder to treat. Mandibular advancement splints don’t solve the problem because it’s not an issue of your muscles not being tight – it’s an issue of your brain not giving your muscles the right instructions.
Do you suspect you might have sleep apnea? One of the most common signs is snoring but you can have the illness without snoring. If you feel tired even after a full night’s rest you might have the illness. Talk to a sleep physician and if you’re diagnosed with sleep apnea, go to a recognized dental office and ask them what they can do to help. Sleep is essential to living your best life so if you get your sleep in order, the rest of your life could improve dramatically.