Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a serious medical condition characterized by disruptions in normal breathing patterns. Patients with OSA experience obstruction to their airflow, which is most often caused by the relaxation of soft tissues in the back of the throat and tongue during sleep. This causes them to stop breathing repeatedly throughout the night. In fact, people who have sleep apnea can stop breathing up to 400 times every night. It’s no wonder that people with this disorder struggle to get deep, restorative sleep.
On top of the debilitating symptoms many people with OSA often experience—such as excessive daytime sleepiness, an inability to concentrate throughout the day, and loud snoring—the sleep disorder is also associated with chronic health concerns. When left untreated, OSA is connected to conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure, anxiety, and depression.
Although the risks of uncontrolled OSA are high, it remains one of the most unacknowledged health concerns. Of the millions of adults in the US with OSA, it is estimated that up to 80 percent of them remain undiagnosed and untreated. Patients aren’t getting the care they need to live their healthiest lives.
Luckily, you can help. According to the ADA, dentists can play an essential role in the multidisciplinary care of patients with sleep apnea. Let’s explore why dentists are so instrumental in screening and treating OSA and why you should be screening for the disorder at your dental practice.
Follow the 2017 ADA Policy
In October 2017, the ADA adopted a new policy in the treatment of disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea. This policy has defined the exact role that dentists could play in the treatment of sleep-related breathing disorders (SRBD) like OSA. More specifically, it asserts that “dentists are the only health care provider with the knowledge and expertise to provide OAT [or oral appliance therapy].” Oral appliance therapy is an excellent treatment for OSA—especially for those who are intolerant of CPAP.
Additionally, the ADA suggests that the dentist’s role in the treatment of SRBD should include the following:
- Screening patients as part of a comprehensive medical and dental history
- Recognizing common symptoms such as daytime sleepiness, choking, snoring, or witnessed apneas
- Evaluating risk factors like high blood pressure and obesity
- Referring patients as necessary to appropriate physicians for proper diagnosis
- Suggesting oral appliance therapy for mild to moderate sleep apnea
- Evaluating patients for the appropriateness of fabricating an oral appliance
- Obtaining patient consent for the proposed treatment, including all available options, potential side effects, and appliance longevity
- Recognizing and managing potential side effects with treatment or referral
This statement was created by the ADA in order to present a comprehensive policy that provides guidance to dentists on their role in the treatment of OSA. If you aren’t already screening for OSA and assisting with oral appliance therapy, you should be.
Check for Dental Signs of OSA
One of the biggest reasons why dentists are in such an excellent position to screen for obstructive sleep apnea is that they have direct access to some of the most telltale signs of the sleep disorder, such as the following:
- Large tongue size
- Scalloped tongue
- Deep palate vault
- Large neck circumference
- Small or recessed chin
- Eroded enamel
- Large tonsils
- Wide uvula
On top of looking for these signs, it’s important to consider differences in gender. Men, for example, are more likely to show traits of already-existing OSA, like a wide uvula, high tongue, or large tonsils. On the other hand, women are more likely to develop OSA with characteristics like a retrognathic profile or large tonsils.
Address the Long-Term Risks of Untreated OSA
Most importantly, the risks of untreated OSA are significant. For example, OSA is associated with life-altering symptoms that can impact overall health and functioning. Many people with the disorder experience loud snoring, an inability to concentrate, and excessive fatigue. Individuals with OSA are even at a higher risk of getting in a car accident. From their relationships to their mental health and productivity, when people aren’t able to sleep well at night, it can impact nearly every area of their life.
Additionally, untreated OSA is associated with serious, chronic health conditions, including the following:
- Heart disease
- Hypertension/high blood pressure
- Weight gain
- Acid reflux
- And more
As a dentist, you have the power to help your patients lead healthier and happier lives. Whether you help them feel more well-rested or provide relief for the intense symptoms associated with other serious conditions, lasting treatments for OSA can change your patients’ lives. Without screening in your dental practice, many of your patients could be living with OSA every day without any relief. The great news is that you don’t have to stand by. You can help!
As you can see, there are many reasons why dentists should be screening and providing solutions for OSA in their practices. According to the ADA, they are not only in an excellent position to screen for OSA, but they are also the only medical provider with the expertise needed to provide oral appliance therapy—a great alternative for individuals who may not be CPAP tolerant. Similarly, dentists are at an advantage when it comes to identifying signs of OSA that manifest themselves in the mouth. Finally, with the right treatment and sleep medicine foundation in place at their practice, dentists can even help address and/or prevent significant health concerns associated with OSA.
Are you ready to help sufferers of OSA? Reach out to us today or visit vivos.com to learn more!