When people hear the term sleep apnea, they may think that specialists like neurologists, pulmonologists, and otolaryngologist are the only sources of help. After all, as the name implies, sleep apnea is an airway and sleep disorder. Few probably think that an orthodontist or dentist could be helpful. However, the two most widely used and effective treatments for sleep apnea are CPAP appliances and dental appliances, meaning your Austin orthodontist can be an invaluable specialist to diagnose sleep apnea and use orthodontic appliances to treat it.
How Common Is Sleep Apnea?
Roughly 20 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea, and it’s estimated that over 80% may have it and not even realize it. Statistics show men are more prone to sleep apnea than women. It’s prevalence amongst sleep disorders is second only to insomnia, and it can quickly become a rather serious problem if not treated properly.
Dentists and orthodontic specialists can help identify the condition, it’s symptoms and causes, and initiate treatment. Before getting into that, let’s understand what sleep apnea is and its symptoms.
What Is Sleep Apnea?
Most people think of sleep apnea as suddenly waking up gasping for air and unable to breathe in the middle of the night. That’s only part of the condition, however. In the night, the brain does partially or fully awake to increase the force of respiratory efforts, but the disorder doesn’t limit itself to nighttime hours. There may be multiple times throughout the day where breathing momentarily stops and starts without warning, and many of these occasions can go unnoticed since they only last a few seconds at a time.
What Are The Symptoms Of Sleep Apnea?
It’s important to remember that all sleep apnea suffers will not exhibit the exact same set of symptoms. Some may only experience a few and to a minor degree. Others may experience them all and to a greater degree. Here are some of the most common sleep apnea symptoms:
- Snoring hard and loudly
- Chronic fatigue despite adequate sleep
- Sleep deprivation, insomnia, and/or frequently awaking during the night
- Mood swings, mental fogging, depression, hypertension, anxiety, stress, and weight gain as a result of sleeplessness and increased cortisol levels
- Increased probability of workplace, vehicle, and other accidents.
- Abnormally loud breathing
- Dry throat and mouth
- Mouth-breathing and feeling of respiratory inadequacy when nose-breathing
- Headaches and migraines
- Momentarily lapses in breathing and/or feeling unable to breathe
- Grinding and clenching teeth
- GERD and other digestive issues
Many of these symptoms will also be related to what’s causing the sleep apnea. Orthodontist and dental professionals will need to determine the cause to provide the best diagnosis and treatment options.
What Causes Sleep Apnea?
From age and weight to gender, there are a number of factors that can make one more or less likely to develop sleep apnea. Research has shown the following three factors to be key contributors to sleep apnea:
- Being diagnosed with hypertension or other cardiac problems
- Having a history of strokes
There are three forms of sleep apnea, each with a different cause:
- Central Sleep Apnea – caused by the brain failing to properly send respiration signals during sleep.
- Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) – caused by the throat and jaw muscles becoming too lax and causing an obstruction in the airway.
- Complex Sleep Apnea – when both OSA and central sleep apnea are involved.
OSA is the most common form of sleep apnea. It obstructs the airway and causes periodic, sudden incidences of not being able to breathe. Diminished respiratory function creates a lack of oxygen in the blood, which then creates many of the symptoms outlined above.
How Is Sleep Apnea Diagnosed?
The lack of ability to recognize and describe sleep apnea symptoms by patients often results in it going undiagnosed and treated for some time. As sleep apnea continues, the emergence of fatigue, anxiety, depression and other mental health symptoms make the symptoms appear all the more confusing for patients and difficult to put into words for healthcare providers. Healthcare visits can easily become centered on the secondary symptoms, such as anxiety, verses the root cause – sleep apnea. It’s this slow progression and diagnostic recognition that makes sleep apnea all the more life-threatening when left undiagnosed and untreated.
Given that most Americans visit a dental office at least yearly, dentists and orthodontists literally have an ideal view to diagnose obstructive sleep apnea. With a patient’s mouth open wide, these professionals can easily identify any airway abnormalities and obstructions. Furthermore, dental professionals will not need to fully rely upon patients being able to put symptoms into words since they can also use the following symptoms of sleep apnea as helpful diagnostic guides:
- Abnormally large neck circumference
- Mouth-breathing and avoidance or inability to nose-breathe
- Deviated septum
- Crusted, or crenelated, tongue
- Soft, long palette that hangs below the tongue
- The shape of maxillary and mandibular arches
- Inability to see the cavity that begins behind the mouth and nose
How Is Sleep Apnea Treated with Orthodontics?
Your Austin Orthodontist, Dr. RJ Jackson, refers patients to a sleep specialist to make an accurate diagnosis of sleep apnea. Once the appropriate diagnosis has been made, one of the recommendations is oral appliances that positions the lower jaw to increase the airway. Orthodontists are the best professionals to manage sleep apnea with oral appliances. This is hardware similar to a mouthguard seen in sporting activities. Patients will wear it during sleep hours to support the jaw and help keep the airway open. It ultimately improves both oral health and the severity and symptoms associated with OSA.