How to Talk to Your Patients about OSA

March 4, 2022

Whether you’ve been in practice for years or are just starting out, talking with patients can sometimes be challenging. They may be unfamiliar with the terms you use. They might struggle with recognizing the effectiveness of treatment. Or, they may simply underestimate the effects that the condition could have on their lives. Tackling these obstacles is key to helping patients get the help that they need to overcome obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and its effects.

OSA is a respiratory condition defined by frequent interruptions in a patient’s normal breathing pattern. These interruptions occur when the muscles in the throat relax to the point of collapse, blocking the airway during sleep. As they experience this blockage, individuals with OSA may stop breathing anywhere from five to 100 times per hour for periods of up to one minute long. Snoring is also a noticeable symptom of OSA.

Fortunately, dentists are in a great position to easily tell if a patient has sleep apnea. We’ll teach you how to communicate this condition effectively to your patients by helping you define it simply, explain its impact, and discuss treatment options.

Describe the Condition Simply

Though OSA may seem like a straightforward condition, there’s no guarantee that your patients will understand it. Nearly 90 percent of adults in the US struggle with health literacy, which may prevent them from understanding anything from their prescription information to even their diagnosis. To help your patients understand OSA, consider implementing these suggestions:

Break It Down

Acronyms are convenient. However, when patients don’t know the acronym’s meaning, using it can hinder their understanding. You can help them by referring to OSA by its full name: obstructive sleep apnea. Doing this for the first three or four times you mention OSA will prevent them from getting lost in your diagnosis.

Worried that they still won’t understand what you mean? Break the terms down even further. You can use this simple description from the British Lung Foundation to help patients with low health literacy:

  • Obstructive: there’s an obstruction in the airway
  • Sleep: it happens when you’re asleep
  • Apnea: it means you stop breathing for a short time

By breaking down health terms to fit your patients’ understanding, you can improve your relationship with them and help them receive better care.

Use an Analogy

Stories can make anything easier to understand—even complicated health principles. For patients who are struggling to understand the mechanics of sleep apnea, you can use Harvard Medical School’s milkshake analogy. The analogy goes like this:

Imagine drinking a milkshake through a paper straw. When you suck in, the weak paper straw collapses, and you don’t get any milkshake. This is similar to what happens in OSA, except the milkshake is air and the straw is your throat muscles.

When you’re awake, breathing is like drinking a milkshake through a metal straw. Your brain sends signals to your tongue and airway muscles so they will stiffen up and prevent a collapse. For most people, these muscles are still activated enough to prevent a collapse during sleep. For those with OSA, the muscles do not respond adequately.

Using analogies like this one can help your patients better understand their condition. By applying these simple communication techniques, you can accommodate a variety of diverse patients and make them feel confident about their care.

Explain the Impact

The next important step in talking with your patients about OSA is to make sure they understand the impact it can have on their lives. Left untreated, OSA can have significant negative effects on many aspects of one’s health. Some of these effects include fatigue, heart problems, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and liver problems. Other associated risks include obesity, asthma, stroke, anxiety, and depression.

Once you’ve explained the negative health impacts of OSA to your patient, your job isn’t finished. You have a responsibility to help your patient see the real effect that OSA can have on their personal well-being. Help them to recognize the day-to-day impact that its effects can have.

For example, a grandmother suffering from OSA-related fatigue may be forced to cancel plans with her grandchildren. An athlete struggling with a heart condition caused by OSA may have to give up his sport. A father whose OSA has left him with complications after major surgery may not see his family again. Your patients want to know the real impact that OSA can have in their lives, so help them by speaking candidly and specifically.

Discuss Treatment Options

Since dentists can tell if their patients have sleep apnea, they are in a critical position to help them receive specialized treatment. Once your patient understands the importance of addressing their OSA, help them understand their treatment options. These options fall under three main categories: therapeutic treatments, surgical treatments, and lifestyle changes. Therapeutic treatments come in the form of oral appliances or airway pressure machines. The continuous positive airway pressure machine, or CPAP, is one of the most common forms of sleep apnea treatment.

When therapeutic treatments don’t do the trick, surgical treatments are another option. Examples of surgical treatments include tissue removal, jaw repositioning, tongue surgery, nasal surgery, and nerve stimulation. If the patient prefers a less-invasive approach, lifestyle changes—including weight loss, exercise, decreasing alcohol consumption, and quitting smoking—can also have positive effects.

Whatever treatment option the patient chooses, address their concerns. Help them to understand all aspects of the treatment, including the cost, the length, the symptoms, the invasiveness, and the level of commitment it requires. Doing so will help you and your patient to have a productive, candid conversation.

For many patients, discussing health complications can be confusing, difficult, and even scary. As a dentist, you can tell if a patient has sleep apnea—and that means you have a unique opportunity to help them feel informed and confident about their challenges with OSA. As you practice these principles by describing OSA in simple terms, explaining its impact, and discussing treatment options, you’ll give your patients a level of care and comfort they won’t find anywhere else.

Want to help patients who struggle with OSA? Visit now or reach out to us to learn more!