What Is Sleep Dentistry?

March 16, 2022

For dentists who specialize in sleep dentistry, a patient’s most impactful treatment happens when their eyes are closed. There is a lot of activity happening when you’re sleeping, and much of it influences one’s oral and overall health.

Studying the health effects of sleep, recognizing the risks of conditions like obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) or chronic snoring, and treating the physical signs of poor sleep habits are the foundation of sleep dentistry. As research continues to link poor sleep habits to conditions like heart disease, stroke, dementia, obesity, depression, and mental health, the expertise of dentists who study and practice sleep dentistry is an essential part of oral health.

Expertise in sleep dentistry means you have experience treating OSA and chronic snoring, pinpointing poor sleep habits, and identifying early physical signs of chronic conditions like heart disease, stroke, depression, and mental health that the patient can discuss with their health provider. There’s more going on in a patient’s mouth than their bite, so let’s discuss how expertise in sleep dentistry expands the services dentists can offer patients for better overall health.

Understand the Relationship between Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Health

Although the prevalence of OSA among Americans is well documented, the percentage of adults who are diagnosed with having OSA is quite low. Experts estimate that around 22 million Americans are struggling to get a good night’s sleep with OSA. And around 80 percent of Americans—even though they routinely wake themselves up at night with delayed breathing—remain undiagnosed.

Sleep experts have found that fitting a patient with an oral device that pulls the jaw forward, thus repositioning the tongue, can potentially open airways for better quality breathing during sleep.

For a more permanent solution, companies are researching the evolutionary development of the upper and lower jaw and how these myofascial formations contribute to the prevalence of OSA in today’s populations. Introducing this innovation in oral care and sleep health isn’t about adding a bandage to a serious problem: Instead, this treatment is an opportunity for dentists to develop meaningful patient care with practical, life-changing solutions for their patients’ suffering.

Understand that Snoring Is Never Just about What We Hear

Although almost half of adults snore occasionally, and around 25 percent snore often every night, snoring is not a natural part of a healthy sleep cycle. In truth, snoring is an indicator that sleep apnea is present.

“Snoring—especially loud snoring broken up by pauses in breathing and loud snorts or gasps as the sleeper takes a breath again—can be a sign of obstructive sleep apnea,” says Alan Schwartz, MD, a sleep expert at Johns Hopkins. “Sleep apnea is a serious risk factor for cardiovascular disease. It should be found and treated as early as possible.”

John Hopkins research found that candidates for sleep apnea experience pauses in breathing, often occurring up to 20 to 30 times every hour. During these pauses, blood oxygen levels fall, and the brain jolts them awake to take a breath. It’s no wonder sleep apnea impacts productivity during daytime hours.

But with snoring acting as an indicator for a more serious problem, is there such a thing as a harmless snore?

Medical experts at the Cleveland Clinic think so. They list numerous factors that exacerbate snoring: alcohol, gender, age, weight, congestion, and sleep position. Even a lack of sleep can cause snoring when your patient’s head finally hits the pillow. Most people experience mild cases of snoring periodically, but if it’s increasing in volume or interferes with quality sleep, it requires an evaluation to determine the source of nightly snoring.

If your patient confides that they experience daytime drowsiness or that they struggle to concentrate on routine tasks, it’s time to discuss the risks associated with snoring and untreated sleep apnea, then urge them to see their doctor to rule out chronic conditions. For example, people with sleep apnea are four times more likely to have a stroke. And over 38,000 people die from cardiovascular problems caused by sleep apnea every year.

If you are looking for new services to expand patient care for your practice, consider sleep dentistry. Adding services in sleep dentistry to your dental practice is another way to enhance and expand your patient relationships by offering comprehensive patient care that includes quality oral treatments as well as monitoring health that extends beyond their teeth.