Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) and Oral Appliances

Sleepy woman in the office

Did you know that your dentist is trained to help treat and manage snoring and sleep apnea? Dental sleep medicine is a dental specialty that uses oral appliance therapy to treat sleeping disorders such as snoring or obstructive sleep apnea. Dentists collaborate together with your physicians to determine the best treatment for you.

There are three types of sleep apnea: obstructive, central, and mixed. Of the three, obstructive sleep apnea is the most common. According to the National Sleep Foundation, obstructive sleep apnea – which is often undiagnosed – can cause pauses in breathing and can lead to restless nights and snoring. The resulting decrease in quality and quantity of sleep can have a negative impact on your health and daily activities.

The Greek word “apnea” literally means “without breath.” Although the symptoms of sleep apnea can vary from one person to another, they could include the following:

  • Excessive Daytime Sleepiness
  • Loud snoring throughout the night.
  • You may wake up with a sore or dry throat. This is often because sleep apnea causes you to breathe through your mouth.
  • Abrupt awakenings, accompanied by gasping and/or choking.
  • Restless sleep, repeated awakenings, or insomnia.
  • Sleepiness or lack of energy during the day, even after a full night’s rest.
    Morning headaches
  • Forgetfulness, mood swings, and loss of interest in sex.
  • Low oxygen levels may cause dizziness upon waking up.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Causes and Risk Factors

Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles at the back of the throat relax too much to permit normal breathing during sleep. These muscles support structures such as the back of your roof (soft palate), triangular tissue hanging from the soft palate, the tonsils, and the tongue. When the muscles relax and your airway narrows or closes, your breathing may be restricted for up to 10 seconds. This can lower your blood oxygen level and lead to a buildup of carbon dioxide. When your brain detects this impaired breathing, it will temporarily wake you up just enough to allow you to reopen your airway. This awakening is usually so brief that you don’t remember it.

These disturbances can happen repeatedly throughout the night and impair your ability to reach deep, restful phases of sleep. The sleep disruptions are often not obvious to the sufferer. Many people suffering from this type of sleep disorder think they are able to sleep well throughout the night.

While anyone can develop obstructive sleep apnea, certain factors can increase your risk. Risk factors like unhealthy lifestyle choices and environments can be altered. Others, like age, race, ethnicity, genetics, and family history, can’t be changed. Lifestyle changes that are healthy can reduce your chances of developing sleep apnea.

Risk factors for obstructive sleep apnea include:

  • Age – OSA can develop at any age. However, as you age, your risk of developing sleep apnea increases.
  • Lifestyle habits – Your risk of sleep apnea is increased by smoking, drinking alcohol, and being overweight.
  • Family history and genetics – Research has shown that sleep apnea can be linked to family history. A healthy lifestyle can help reduce this risk.
  • Race or ethnicity – In the United States, sleep apnea is more common among Hispanics, Native Americans, and blacks than it is among whites.
  • Narrowed airway – This can be inherited or due to enlarged tonsils or adenoids.
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Family history – Having family members with obstructive sleep apnea may put you at an increased risk
  • Asthma

When Should You See a Medical Professional?

If you or your partner notice any of the following symptoms, consult a doctor or dentist:

  • Snoring loudly enough to disrupt your sleep and others near you
  • Gasping for air or choking when you wake up
  • Intermittent pauses in your breathing during sleep
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness that interferes with your work and other daily activities

Your dentist or doctor might recommend starting with conservative, lifestyle changes for milder cases of OSA:

  • Regular exercise
  • Lose weight if you’re overweight
  • Lower alcohol consumption – not more than one drink per day
  • Avoid alcohol several hours before bedtime
  • Stop smoking
  • Use a nasal decongestant or allergy medication
  • Sleep on your side rather than on your stomach or back
  • Avoid sedative medication such as anti-anxiety medications or sleeping pills

Oral Appliance Therapy

Oral appliance therapy is used by dentists to treat snoring and obstructive sleep apnea in adults. An oral appliance is a custom-fit device that is worn while you sleep (similar to an orthodontic retainer). It works by preventing the airway from collapsing by supporting the jaw in a forward position. Oral appliance therapy is an effective treatment for obstructive sleep apnea and snoring.

Oral Appliance for Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Oral Appliances

At Dental Innovations of Virginia, our dentists and staff work closely with your primary care physician and sleep specialists to provide diagnosis and optimal long-term care of obstructive sleep apnea and snoring. This includes periodic periodontal and dental assessment as well as the fabrication and maintenance of properly fitted oral appliances that can be safely used over time.

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