When you’re visiting with your patients, you’ve likely discussed the common signs of sleep apnea: the nights of interrupted sleep, snoring, etc. But there are other symptoms associated with a sleep disorder that has very little to do with sleeping. And it’s important to watch out for those signs when talking with your patients.
Let’s discuss four signs of a sleep disorder that have nothing to do with sleeping.
1. Breathing through the Mouth Instead of the Nose
Your patients may mention that they wake up numerous times during the night, or they wake up hoarse, irritable, or burdened with horrible morning breath. These are signs of a chronic mouth breather.
When we breathe through the mouth rather than the nose, it triggers the sympathetic nervous system, causing us to become more hyperactive and preventing us from moving into a deeper sleep. Mouth breathing also narrows the size of the airway significantly, as it causes the jaw to move inferiorly and posteriorly.
In some cases, you can train yourself to breathe through your nose. Once you’re aware that you breathe through your mouth, here are some solutions:
- Practice new breathing techniques that help you focus on nasal breathing.
- If your nasal passage is perpetually blocked, you may suffer from allergies. Studies show that over 50 million people suffer from allergies each year. Talk with your doctor about effective medications.
- Stress contributes to chronic mouth breathing. When left untreated, stress also increases the risks of cardiovascular disease, mental illness, dementia, etc.
2. Clenching or Grinding Your Teeth
Doctors continue to explore possible connections between sleep apnea and bruxism (teeth grinding/clenching), and they’ve formulated several hypotheses. “These hypotheses include that OSA triggers sleep-related bruxism, that sleep bruxism triggers OSA, that they occur independently, and that they are involved in a complex and multidimensional relationship,” says Eric Suni.
If your patient shows signs of chipped, loose, fractured, or flattened teeth, they most likely grind their teeth at night. Addressing symptoms associated with OSA may help them stop grinding and clenching, therefore improving the strength of their teeth.
3. Using the Bed for Activities Other Than Sleeping
When your patient uses their bed as an extension of their workspace, a makeshift movie theater, or a dining room for pizza night, it interferes with sleep quality.
“When healthy sleepers get into bed, their minds are already primed for sleep since they have a strong mental association between the bed and sleep,” explains Martin Reed, creator of Insomnia Coach. “For many insomniacs, the bed is associated with stress, anxiety, and wakefulness—and adding activities other than sleep or sex can make this lack of association with sleep even stronger.”
Setting a sleep schedule can improve the quality of one’s sleep—alternatively, failing to do so can result in the opposite and lead to insomnia. If a patient regularly says they are tired at a checkup, consider asking them about their nighttime routine. It’s possible that their poor sleep hygiene affects the quality of their sleep and could have led to a sleep disorder.
4. A History of Sleep Disorders in the Family
Studies show that the more relatives you have who suffer from sleep apnea, the more likely it is for you to suffer from it as well. Research suggests that sleep apnea is about 40 percent genetic, while the other 60 percent of causes are environmental. Plus, the more relatives you have with a sleep disorder, the higher your risk of developing the condition.
If a patient mentions getting insufficient sleep, consider asking them if they know anyone who struggles with sleep or has a sleep disorder. If they can think of several people in their family who also have problems sleeping, they could have sleep apnea or insomnia.
Effective oral care extends beyond teeth and gums. It includes discussing lifestyle habits that impact your patient’s dental health. Not only are you best prepared to catch potential problems, but you may be the first or only line of defense for screening and helping those in need get the treatment they need to sleep well and improve their quality of life.