Researchers at the University of British Colombia have concluded that a single occurrence of sleep apnea can negatively impact the ability of the body to regulate its blood pressure. This can put a serious strain on the patient’s heart, putting them at risk of heart attack or stroke. Sleep apnea is a common condition, impacting over 25 million Americans, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine; many of which go untreated. There is a simple treatment available for sleep apnea that can help prevent negative impacts on blood pressure and total health. But the treatment is not available at the doctor – it’s available at the dentist.
Sleep apnea occurs when a patient stops and starts breathing repeatedly during sleep. There are several types of the condition, but the most common type is obstructive sleep apnea, in which the muscles of the throat and tongue become so relaxed during sleep that they collapse, cutting of the patient's airway. When this obstruction occurs, the patient experiences a decrease in their oxygen level. For some patients, breathing interruption can occur 30 or more times in an hour of sleep.
It turns out that this short dip in oxygen is actually pretty serious, according to the researchers at UBC. Their research study found that after six hours of inconsistent oxygen levels the circulatory system begins to deteriorate. This is new territory for sleep apnea researchers and should be a cause of concern to sleep apnea sufferers. "It is well-known that sleep apnea and high blood pressure go hand in hand, but it the impacts of the condition on the circulatory system were not realized before this study," says Dr. Steven P. Rogers, D.M.D. Rogers is a Grant’s Pass, Oregon, dentist.
That’s right, a dentist. Rogers, like many dentists, has begun providing treatments for obstructive sleep apnea patients. The treatment comes in the form of a small, plastic dental appliance. When a patient’s jaw is out of alignment, their bite is out of natural position. This forces the tongue into an unnatural position and can block the airway when relaxed during sleep. The sleep apnea dental appliance is designed to change the alignment of the patient’s jaw to prevent the tongue from falling back into the throat and blocking the airway.
These appliances are custom fitted to the patient and worn over the teeth similarly to athletic mouth guards. By putting the jaw back to the natural position, the patient can get a full night’s sleep and reduce their risk of health complications.
Dental sleep appliances are becoming an increasingly popular alternative to traditional sleep apnea therapies that include surgery and a continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP machine. Surgical options include the removal of the patient's tonsils, adenoids, and uvula in order to increase the size of the patient’s airway and allow more air flow. Patients that use the CPAP machine experience a constant flow of air delivered via a mask to force the airway open. Both of these treatments can be less than desirable, with considerable risks and complications.
"Sleep apnea patients who have used the CPAP machine often complain that machine is loud, which is counterproductive to its purpose. Some patients also feel claustrophobic wearing its mask," explains Rogers.
Sleep apnea can also cause dental concerns in sufferers. "Because the patient’s mouth is open or they are experiencing constant air flow as a result of the CPAP machine, they may develop dry mouth. Dry mouth can cause an increase in bacterial growth, causing tooth decay and gingivitis," says Rogers.
Patients with sleep apnea are encouraged to seek treatment for their condition to protect their heart and dental health.