A common misconception many people hold regarding dentistry is that dentists only treat teeth. While teeth are certainly our primary focus, your dental care team is also trained to detect oral conditions like sleep apnea. Symptoms such as large tonsils, uvula (the dangly thing in the back of your throat), tongue, and other airway obstructions, as well as a narrow pallet (roof of the mouth), wearing of front teeth, and a jaw that sits too far back can all point the way to a sleep apnea diagnosis. Additionally, your medical history form and leading questions from your dentist or hygienist may unearth a history of snoring, high blood pressure, obesity, and dry mouth; all of these symptoms have been associated with sleep breathing disorders. Clearly, sleep breathing disorders have a strong correlation to oral health!
The most well-known sleep breathing disorder is sleep apnea; apnea means literally “lack of air” and it is a term used when the sufferer actually experiences moments when they are unable to breathe during sleep. Other sleep disorders are equally common such as hypopnea which indicates very slow or shallow breathing; hypopnea does not allow a significant enough flow of oxygen to sustain healthy body functions. When the body enters a state of apnea or hypopnea it eventually has to trigger the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) which essentially *jolts* the body back into normal breathing. This compensation that the body naturally performs certainly sounds convenient, but consider the fact that triggering the sympathetic nervous system partially arouses the sleeper and speeds up the heart rate, a condition clearly not ideal for a restful night of sleep. Sleep studies have indicated that sufferers of sleep breathing disorders can be *jolted* like this up to thirty or more times per hour depending on the severity of their condition. If every night is characterized by the body continually fighting for survival in this way and never experiencing true rest in sleep there should be no surprise that secondarily to sleep disorders many sufferers find themselves exhausted, experiencing high blood pressure, and gaining weight.
Unfortunately, serious breathing disorders can be fatal if untreated as they can lead to strokes and heart attacks, and worse still, most breathing disorders are only experienced in deep sleep, making them nearly undetectable to the individual experiencing them. Your dental team plays an important role in recognizing signs and symptoms of sleep breathing disorders. We can provide referrals, recommendations, and some dentists can discuss alternatives to the C-pap such as appliances which adjust the oral cavity to create room for increased airflow. The positioning of the jaw, tongue, palate, and even alignment of the teeth can influence risk for sleep breathing disorders; any anatomical variation which creates a crowded space in the oral cavity can increase the likelihood that an individual will experience a sleep breathing disorder. Many dentists and hygienists are very well qualified to recognize potential symptoms associated with sleep breathing disorders, and they will not hesitate to recommend a sleep study if it seems warranted. Talk with your medical doctor or dentist about your risk if you suspect that yourself or a loved one may be experiencing a sleep breathing disorder.