The Risk of Untreated Sleep Apnea

December 7, 2021

Sleep apnea is a serious health condition that occurs when an individual’s breathing stops repeatedly throughout the night as he or she sleeps, and it’s more common than you might think. In fact, millions of Americans and one billion people worldwide are expected to have the disorder. Of these people struggling with their sleep every night, over 80 percent of them remain undiagnosed and therefore untreated. How many of these secret sufferers are your patients?

On top of the many daily symptoms that those with OSA can experience—such as excessive sleepiness and fatigue, an inability to concentrate throughout the day, and snoring—the disorder is also associated with a number of serious health concerns. The risk of untreated sleep apnea grows every day a patient goes without treatment.

The good news is, as a dentist, you can do a lot to help your patients get access to the treatment they need. In fact, according to the ADA, you are in the best position to screen for sleep apnea due to the presence of several signs of OSA in an individual’s mouth. The ADA also says that all dentists should be screening their patients for sleep apnea and providing them with access to oral appliance therapy—an excellent alternative for those who do not respond well to CPAP treatment.

Let’s dive into what you need to know about sleep apnea, including what it is, important dental signs that an individual may have the disorder, the lasting risk of leaving it untreated, and which treatment options are available to your patients.

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is defined as a chronic sleep disorder that is characterized by breathing cessation or airflow reduction (hypopnea) that lasts at least 10 seconds and occurs more than five times an hour during sleep. There are three types of sleep apnea: obstructive, central, and complex.

  • Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common form of the disorder, occurring when an individual’s throat muscles relax to the point of blocking the airway, leaving them unable to breathe.
  • Central sleep apnea indicates there is an issue with the central nervous system and occurs when your brain is unable to send the proper signals to your muscles that control breathing.
  • Complex sleep apnea syndrome is the combination of both obstructive and central sleep apnea and is also known as treatment-emergent central sleep apnea.

Not only is OSA the most common form of sleep apnea, but it is also the most relevant form of the disorder that you will notice in your dental office.

How Do I Know If a Patient Has OSA?

A dentist is often the first person to notice that someone may have sleep apnea because so many signs of the disorder manifest in the mouth. For example, here are just a few of the most common signs that a patient may have OSA:

  • Bruxism: Worn tooth surfaces, a spike in cavities, and receding gums are all huge signs that a patient grinds their teeth. Many patients with OSA will grind their teeth and tense their jaws in order to open their airways, waking them up and allowing them to breathe.
  • A small jaw: The majority of people with OSA have a narrow upper jaw that can cause the nasal airway to become compromised.
  • Scalloped tongue: Many of those who have OSA will push their tongue down and into their teeth in order to open the airway as they sleep, leading to a tongue with scalloped edges.
  • Redness in the throat: Waking up with a sore throat is another common symptom of OSA. Irritation of the throat can occur due to the dryness caused by snoring.
  • Breathing through the mouth: Not only are people more likely to breathe through their mouths with OSA, but mouth breathing can also lead to more serious symptoms and worsen the disorder.
  • Macroglossia: Also known as a large tongue, macroglossia can block the airway and leave someone unable to breathe.

What’s great about dentists integrating sleep apnea screening in their practices is that they can be done in a regular check-up. If you notice that any of your patients have one or more of these symptoms, it may be time to start a conversation with them about the possibility of OSA. The sooner you can give a sleep test and accurate diagnosis, the sooner you can begin treatment and make a genuine impact in their lives and reduce the risk of untreated sleep apnea.

What Is the Risk of Untreated Sleep Apnea?

One of the reasons why early screening and diagnosis is so important is because OSA is associated with so many serious health concerns. According to one study, OSA patients show a high prevalence of cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases, and metabolic disorders—and that’s just the beginning.

Many other disorders were also identified to be associated with OSA, including the following:

  • Chronic liver disease
  • Acid reflux
  • Peptic ulcer disease
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depression
  • Insomnia

Similarly, the authors of the study found that 10 of these comorbidities were associated with increased mortality risk. Clearly, the risk of untreated sleep apnea increases the longer the disorder goes untreated, and the more likely it is to impact nearly every area of an individual’s health and well-being. By treating OSA, you can offer patients hope for a brighter future.

How Can I Treat Sleep Apnea?

There’s a wide variety of treatment options available for OSA. With your patients’ specific needs and desires in mind, you will be able to suggest a treatment plan that works for their lifestyles. Similarly, working with their medical doctor can help you provide the most efficient care for them!

One treatment in particular—oral appliance therapy—is a great option for dentists to administer in their practices. For example, The Vivos System is an innovative treatment therapy for mild-to-moderate OSA that has seen impressive results. In fact, one study found that one in four patients who have used the Vivos treatment showed no symptoms of OSA afterward. If you’re interested in learning more about Vivos, you can visit

Although OSA is a serious condition that affects millions of people in the United States alone, all hope is not lost. By implementing sleep medicine into your dental practice, you could make a significant difference in your patients’ lives for years to come.