Sleep apnea is a breathing problem that affects millions of Americans. It is a serious health condition that influences the health of your whole body. It may seem to be growing in prevalence, but it is more accurate to say that we are growing in our understanding of it and therefore recognizing it more frequently. It also may be increasing in prevalence due to the worsening obesity epidemic in America.
What is Sleep Apnea?
The word apnea simply means not breathing. An apnea is an event, during which the affected person stops breathing. There are two general categories for sleep apnea. One is obstructive sleep apnea, and the other is central sleep apnea.
In obstructive sleep apnea, there is a physical obstruction of the airway. In the condition of central sleep apnea, the problem lies in the central nervous system, and the brain does not send signals to the respiratory system to breathe. Of the two, obstructive sleep apnea is more common and easier to treat.
What Dental Problems Can Sleep Apnea Cause?
Dentists have become involved in the recognition and treatment of obstructive sleep apnea for a few reasons. First, we are in a position to recognize evidence of the condition and refer the patient for medical care. Next, one of the treatments for OSA uses a dental appliance, which must be made and monitored by your dentist. And lastly, sleep apnea can negatively impact your teeth.
Sleep apnea causes several things to happen inside the mouth, which can produce the following evidence on the teeth.
- Teeth Damage from Heavy Clenching/Grinding – Sleep apnea leads to a drop in the blood oxygen levels. When the brain detects this drop, it sends signals out to various areas of the body to attempt to increase oxygen. One of those signals tells the lower jaw to clamp down and push slightly forward because this movement opens the airway. (If you have ever taken a CPR class, you may remember that in order to open the airway, you pull the lower jaw forward.). This reflex is good for helping you breathe. But it is bad for the teeth. It leads to clenching or a forward grinding of the teeth, and that can cause cracked teeth, flattened or shortened teeth, and gum recession.
- Acid Erosion of the Teeth – The breathing reflex can continue despite an obstruction of the airway. The ribs may expand, but when no air flows in, it creates a negative pressure, which can pull acid up out of the stomach into the esophagus. Patients with obstructive sleep apnea very commonly suffer from acid reflux or GERD, too. Acid is very dangerous for the teeth. It is the only substance that can chemically dissolve enamel. Patients with severe acid reflux can lose drastic amounts of enamel.
When your dentist observes these signs, he or she may ask questions about your quality of sleep to determine whether you are at risk for sleep apnea.
What is the Treatment for Sleep Apnea?
Due to the prevalence of sleep apnea and its effect on your overall health, research and development of new treatments are ongoing. At this time, there are a few categories of treatment.
CPAP/BiPAP Breathing Machines
These breathing machines stop sleep apnea by using positive airway pressure (PAP) to keep the airway open. Patients wear the machine during sleep and make adjustments to the pressure settings as needed. A medical doctor prescribes and monitors the use of these devices.
Oral Appliance Therapy
Another method for opening the airway involves mimicking the reflex we see occurring in the lower jaw. Dentists make oral appliances for the treatment of sleep apnea that hold the upper and lower jaw together and put light forward pressure on the lower jaw. These appliances, often called Mandibular Advancement Devices, are also adjustable and successful in treating mild to moderate obstructive sleep apnea.
Oral surgeons and ear, nose and throat specialists often provide surgical intervention to attempt to open the airway and promote a more favorable situation for smooth breathing. These surgeries may involve removing a portion of the palate or implanting devices to stimulate breathing.
More Questions about Sleep Apnea?
Call Rockland Dental Specialists today to schedule a consultation with our dental experts. We can answer all of your questions and help you get back on track to good, healthy sleep!