How Your Dentist Can Help Detect and Treat Sleep Apnea

November 6, 2015 Updated: November 6, 2015

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Snoring can be bad for your health—and not just because your partner may kick you or toss you out of bed! Snoring can be a sign of sleep apnea, a serious condition that is reaching epidemic proportions.

Sleep apnea can increase the risk of heart disease, dementia, and a host of other diseases. Like many chronic diseases, the early stages may not cause obvious symptoms and the disease often progresses to cause significant damage before people become aware. If you snore, let your physician or dentist know and they can refer you for a sleep study.

Sleep apnea is a common disorder in which you have one or more pauses in breathing or shallow breaths during sleep. These breathing pauses can last from a few seconds to a few minutes and can happen 30 times or more per hour. Sleep quality is poor as a result and this often leads to daytime drowsiness.

Sleep apnea can often go undiagnosed as it is not something that is likely to come up during the course of a routine physical and many people are unaware of it since it occurs while they are asleep.

The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea, which is when the airway is restricted. This causes the soft palate to vibrate, which is the sound of snoring.

Doctors diagnose sleep apnea based on medical and family histories, a physical exam, and sleep study results. Your primary care doctor will decide whether you need to consult a sleep specialist. Often your dentist will be the first medical professional to become aware of the disorder since he or she is usually in more frequent contact with you than your doctor is.  

A dentist may suspect sleep apnea if you report lethargy, morning headaches, or dry mouth, which can be caused by open mouth breathing during sleep. Your dentist may send you to a sleep medicine specialist who will assess your condition. If you are diagnosed with the disorder, you may return to the dentist to receive a mandibular repositioning appliance.

Treatment options vary depending on the severity of the disorder. Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is the standard treatment for sleep apnea. You will get a device connected to a mask that goes over the mouth and/or nose and is held in place with straps while you sleep. A motor blows air down the throat to keep airway open at night during sleep. Unfortunately, many people find the device cumbersome.

Other treatments range from behavioral changes such as losing weight, changing sleep positions or wearing a dental appliance while sleeping. The dental mandibular positioner looks like a retainer and works by pulling the jaw forward to open the airway. It can be effective for mild to moderate sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea can trigger the release of stress hormones, which change the way in which the body uses energy and makes you feel sleepy during the day. Additional side effects can be weight gain, memory loss, and your skin shows increased signs of aging. There is evidence that obstructive sleep apnea can increase the risk for high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, congestive heart failure, atrial fibrillation, diabetes, and of a sleep-related automobile accident.

If you snore, wake up tired, or find yourself falling asleep in the middle of the day let your physician or dentist know and get a sleep test.

Dr. Rebecca Koenigsberg practices general dentistry at Gallery 57 Dental. A graduate of Columbia University and an Invisalign-certified dentist, she focuses on providing patients a healthy, aesthetic smile. For more information, visit