Sleep apnea is the cessation of breathing during sleep, a common problem that affects both adults and children. Certain sleep apnea types can be treated by your dentist or oral surgeon. Your doctor may also be a part of the diagnosis and treatment.

The National Institutes of Health estimate that more than 25 million Americans have sleep apnea, most often undetected or misdiagnosed. In fact, conservative estimates suggest that only 16 percent of sleep apnea sufferers receive treatment.

What Happens if Sleep Apnea Remains Untreated?

If sleep apnea is left undiagnosed and untreated for too long, it can lead to severe health complications, including:

  • Stroke
  • Heart attack
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Memory and Concentration Impairment

People with sleep apnea stop breathing on multiple occasions throughout the night. These frequent interruptions dangerously lower your body’s oxygen levels, forcing your brain to wake you up into a semi-conscious state – enough to take a proper breath. The sleep apnea cycle of interrupted breathing and waking can happen dozens or even hundreds of times a night.

What are Some Symptoms of Sleep Apnea?

Some of the most common symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • Daytime exhaustion
  • Snoring
  • Gasping for air or choking during sleep
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Poor concentration
  • Weight gain
  • Heartburn and indigestion
  • Headaches
  • Sinus problems
  • Night sweats

How Does Sleep Apnea Occur?

Sleep apnea occurs in three forms:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea is an airway blockage caused by a genetic abnormality such as excessive tissue in the back of the tongue, throat or nose.
  • Central sleep apnea results when the brain fails to send proper signals to muscles responsible for breathing.
  • Mixed sleep apnea (also called complex sleep apnea) is diagnosed when both central sleep apnea and obstructive sleep apnea are present.

How Can My Dentist Help Me with Sleep Apnea?

Your dentist may be able to correct obstructive sleep apnea by fitting you with an oral appliance that is worn during the night. If your sleep apnea is caused by the tongue resting on the airway, a tongue-retaining device can possibly correct the problem. Sleep apnea caused by the incorrect positioning of the jaw may be treated with a device inserted into the mouth or strapped around the head to adjust the jaw’s positioning. Dental devices worn inside the mouth to treat sleep apnea look like athletic mouth guards. They are removable and worn only at night.

Oral appliances can be used for mild to moderate sleep apnea and snoring, caused by a repetitive obstruction to the airway. Airway obstruction occurs because of an anatomical limitation such as a large or floppy tongue, excess tissue in the throat, obesity, nasal obstruction, or an enlarged uvula or tonsils. Sleep apnea severity is defined among other variables by the number of breathing pauses per hour of sleep, which may lead to low blood oxygen levels and may or may not involve snoring. Sleep apnea treatment options should be carefully weighed as this disorder can lead to serious and sometimes debilitating consequences, including among others, high blood pressure, stroke, congestive heart failure or diabetes.

Patients with high moderate or severe sleep apnea are generally not good candidates for oral appliances as it will not help adequately resolve their apnea. Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) therapy remains the standard of care for those patients. However, if you do not respond to or are not a candidate for CPAP, you may re-evaluate your options by consulting your sleep physician.

Only qualified and trained personnel should fit oral appliances.

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