According to a study performed by Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry, 76 percent of dentists screen for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). Even more intriguing, 60 percent of those who said they screen for OSA are doing so for less than 70 percent of their patients. Because the diagnosis and treatment of sleep apnea often fall into the hands of doctors, many dentists either do not realize they should be screening for the disorder or do not feel confident in their ability to do so. 

The bottom line is that dentists are essential to the first line of screening and presenting treatment options for their patients. By working together to address the sleep apnea epidemic, dentists and doctors can decrease the rate of undetected OSA. Not only will this help patients sleep better every night and improve their quality of life, but it may also help control several associated comorbidities.

Why are dentists so essential? Let’s dive into three reasons why dentists are in the best position to screen for sleep apnea and help patients get the deep sleep they need to lead a healthy life.

Sleep Apnea Can Present Itself in Oral Anatomy

About 80 percent of people with OSA have no idea they have it. There are a few reasons why this may be the case. First of all, many patients are unaware they have a sleep disorder because they are asleep when symptoms express themselves. Similarly, there are few healthcare professionals who get close enough to their patients’ mouths to know if something looks like it could be amiss. This means that sleep-related breathing disorders, such as sleep apnea, can go undetected—and undiagnosed—for extended periods. 

Dentists are the perfect first line of screening and detection because several signs of sleep apnea manifest themselves in the structure of an individual’s mouth and throat. Additionally, dentists often receive an education in oral anatomy that is much more extensive than other physicians’ training in this subject area, which means they are well equipped to identify possible problems. Dentists are also in a unique position to provide this expertise and check for signs of sleep apnea without adding an extra examination to a patient’s to-do list. 

While no single physical sign or symptom is a definitive indicator that an individual struggles with a sleep disorder, several significant anatomical differences have been associated with sleep apnea, including the following:

  • Large tongue
  • Enlarged neck circumference
  • Small or recessed chin
  • Scalloped tongue
  • Overbite
  • Enlarged tonsils
  • Ground teeth
  • Vaulted palate

As you screen your patients, it’s essential to look out for these characteristics and account for gender and age differences. Signs may manifest themselves in different ways based on the individual. For example, men typically show physical traits more often than women do.

Early Diagnosis and Treatment Are Key to Improving Health

Because dentists have the education and training necessary to detect possible signs of OSA, dental screening can lead to earlier diagnosis and better treatment outcomes. The earlier sleep apnea is detected and diagnosed, the sooner you can work with a patient’s medical provider to create an effective treatment plan—and the sooner you can improve your patient’s quality of life with better sleep. This can dramatically reduce the risk of developing other chronic conditions that are associated with sleep-disordered breathing. 

Treatment can also significantly impact an individual’s physical and psychological health. It can lead to several improvements in a patient’s everyday life, including the following: 

  • Blood pressure regulation: Sleep apnea treatment can help regulate your blood pressure and drop it to a healthy level—even without medication.
  • Lower risk of heart disease: Treatment reduces the stress of waking up repeatedly throughout the night. It also changes the way your body consumes oxygen.
  • Reversal of type 2 diabetes: Chronic sleep deprivation may prevent your body from using insulin properly, which may lead to type 2 diabetes.
  • Weight loss: OSA can lead to weight gain, worsening the severity of the sleep disorder. Treatment can stop this vicious cycle in its tracks.
  • Improved intimacy and relationship health: Sleep apnea can result in reduced libido and put a strain on a relationship because of snoring. Treatment can address both of these issues.

These benefits are only the beginning of a long list of ways treatment could improve the lives of those struggling with OSA. The earlier you and your patient’s doctor get to work on providing treatment, the sooner your patient will experience relief. 

Sleep Apnea Is Associated with Chronic Health Conditions

Up to 83 percent of people with heart disease also have obstructive sleep apnea. Sleep deprivation can do damage to an individual’s health beyond daytime sleepiness or exhaustion the next day. Additionally, untreated sleep apnea and other sleep disorders show ties to chronic conditions that can further impact an individual’s quality of life.

Several severe and chronic health conditions are associated with OSA, including the following: 

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Strokes
  • Heart attacks
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Asthma
  • Cancer

The sooner healthcare providers can detect sleep apnea, the quicker they can address other possible comorbid conditions that a patient may have—and the less likely these conditions are to develop in the first place. 

Dentists are in the best position to provide the expertise needed to identify OSA and refer patients to a doctor that can help provide a treatment plan that is right for them. Not only do they have the training needed to identify possible physical signs of sleep apnea efficiently, but their involvement in screening can also help with early diagnosis and better treatment. When are you going to start screening for OSA in your dental office?