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Obstructive Sleep Apnea: What it Is, What the Symptoms Are, and How Your Dental Team Can Help

Richard A Huot, DDS

The definition of Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) is the physical narrowing of the airway by any means, which can be due to obesity, a smaller-than-normal jaw or an enlarged tongue, set of tonsils, or tissue, which interferes with normal breathing. If left untreated, OSA can cause difficulty breathing at night, excessive and loud snoring and drowsiness during the day. These three important signs can lead to a diagnosis of Obstructive Sleep Apnea. Other symptoms, such as waking up with a headache, having to go to the bathroom during the night and trouble concentrating during the day, can lead to the same diagnosis.

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, one-third of Americans fail to get a good night's sleep, and many of these people could have undiagnosed OSA. Additionally, for about 5 in 100 people who snore, it is estimated that many have OSA and would benefit from a medical evaluation to rule out OSA as the cause of their snoring.

In one study alone, reported by Diabetes Care magazine, there is a high prevalence of undiagnosed OSA (more than 86 percent) among obese patients with type 2 diabetes. Having the signs and symptoms of OSA can put you at risk for high blood pressure, heart problems or even stroke, and some patients report even falling asleep at work or while driving.

If you think you may have OSA, you would be well advised to talk to your primary care physician or dentist about it. He may refer you for an overnight sleep study, called a polysomnogram, which is conducted by a medical specialist trained in sleep disorders. The test results of the polysomnogram will give you and your physician a diagnosis of how severe your OSA is, and what the course of treatment will be.

Once the determination is made that you have OSA, a course of treatment may include weight loss, avoidance of alcohol four hours prior to bedtime or a different position for falling asleep, such as laying on your stomach or side. More specific treatments include a Positive Airway Pressure (PAP) machine that consists of a light mask connected to an oxygen source that is worn overnight during sleep, which can be very effective. Surgeries to correct nasal or airway obstructions are also recommended occasionally to relieve symptoms of OSA.

A more moderate treatment is an oral appliance that brings the tongue and jaw forward, and is fabricated by a qualified dentist familiar with these devices. It is important for all patients to receive an accurate sleep study conducted by a qualified physician before any of these devices are used by the patient.

Some of the side effects of these devices include dry mouth and jaw joint (TMJ) problems. It's important for your dentist to see you regularly to prevent these conditions. The use of fluoride gels, toothpastes and mouthrinses may prevent dental problems from occurring, and should be monitored by your dentist and dental hygienist.

Obstructive sleep apnea is a preventable and easily treated medical condition that can be cured with the correct diagnosis and use of a trained and competent medical/dental team.

For more information, visit the American Dental Association website or the American Academy of Sleep Medicine website.

Learn more about sleep apnea at the Colgate Oral Care resources.

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