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The Connection Between Sleep Apnea and Oral Health

Yawning again? Always hitting the snooze button? Constantly fighting the urge to nod off? If these symptoms sound familiar, you could be one of approximately 25 million people in the U.S. who suffers from obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). Interestingly, your dentist may play an important role in the diagnosis, risks, and treatments for OSA. Learn more about the connection between sleep apnea and oral health.

What is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

One of the most common forms of sleep apnea, OSA occurs when the muscles in the back of your throat relax and cause you to stop breathing. The lack of oxygen causes your brain to panic and wake the body to resume normal airflow. These disruptions can repeat up to 30 times in one hour, preventing rest.

The Mayo Clinic outlines some common symptoms of OSA, including:

  • Loud snoring
  • Morning headaches
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Difficulty paying attention
  • Irritability

How Does Sleep Apnea Affect Your Teeth?

Those with sleep apnea are more likely to breathe through their mouth while they sleep, making them more susceptible to dry mouth. Because saliva plays an essential role in washing away food particles and defending against cavities, regular dry mouth puts you at a higher risk for tooth decay.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, other oral health conditions like bruxism (grinding your teeth) and temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ) are also linked with sleep apnea. So sleep apnea patients may experience tooth sensitivity, worn or damaged teeth, or jaw pain.

OSA Risk Factors

OSA affects people of all ages and backgrounds; however, certain factors may increase your risk. These factors include:

  • Excess weight. Fat deposits around the upper airway can obstruct breathing.
  • Gender. The Mayo Clinic reports that men are two to three times more likely to experience sleep apnea than women.
  • Family history. The risk of developing sleep apnea increases for people who have family members with this condition.
  • Alcohol use. Alcoholic beverages relax the throat muscles, which can worsen OSA.
  • Smoking. Smoking can cause inflammation and fluid retention in the airway.
  • Narrowed airway. Enlarged adenoids or tonsils can block the airway, or a naturally narrow throat may be hereditary.
  • Nasal congestion. Difficulty breathing through your nose increases your chances of developing OSA.

OSA Diagnosis and Treatment

If you or a loved one recognizes some of these common symptoms and risk factors for OSA, your primary care physician or dentist can refer you to a sleep specialist. Many types of physicians and dentists specialize in treating sleep disorders.

A sleep test will confirm your diagnosis. The gold standard of sleep testing is called polysomnography. It measures brain waves, eye and chin movements, heart rate and rhythm, and respiration. Many patients opt for the cheaper and less intrusive home sleep study. This simplified test tracks your breathing, oxygen levels, and breathing effort from the comfort of your bed. If you have a particular heart, neuromuscular, or breathing problem, an overnight sleep study at a sleep center may be the better option.

For mild sleep apnea cases, the physician or dentist may recommend lifestyle changes, such as losing weight or quitting smoking. A nasal decongestant or other medication may be prescribed for those with allergies. For those with moderate to severe cases, surgery or therapies — such as positive airway pressure devices or oral appliances — may be the best solution.

What is Oral Appliance Therapy?

An oral appliance fits like an orthodontic retainer to push the jaw forward, retain the tongue, and maintain an open airway. Over 100 variations of FDA-approved appliances exist, and your dentist can help you choose the best option. The dentist will use digital or physical impressions of your mouth to customize the appliance for you. Patients often prefer an oral appliance because they are comfortable, convenient for traveling, and easy to care for.

Sufficient, uninterrupted sleep plays a critical role in your physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Plus, it's uniquely tied to your oral health. Don't needlessly suffer from the effects of OSA. Talk to your doctor or dentist about sleep apnea and the right solutions for you.

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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