When you think of your dentist, you may only think of the guilt you feel at not flossing enough, or maybe that it’s time to schedule your regular cleaning. It’s not often that we consider the other ways our dentists keep us healthy. When it comes to sleep disordered breathing, your sleep apnea dentist may just save your life. Here’s how they help.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea (also referred to as sleep disordered breathing) is a condition that affects an estimated 25 million people in the U.S. Of the three kinds of sleep apnea, obstructive sleep apnea is the most common.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) occurs when the throat muscles relax so much that airways become blocked during sleep. The brain feels the oxygen deprivation and wakes the sleeper. This waking is abrupt and often accompanied by a loud, gasping breath.

For those with mild obstructive sleep apnea, these incidents may only occur once or twice a night. For more severe obstructive sleep apnea, sleepers may stop breathing five to ten times an hour, every hour, for an entire night’s sleep.

Sleep apnea symptoms

People who experience sleep apnea report daytime fatigue and difficulty concentrating. Additionally, they may experience:

  • Snoring
  • Fogginess and difficulty concentrating
  • Noticeable cessation of breath followed by a choking intake of air
  • Dry mouth or sore throat upon awakening
  • Morning headache or migraine
  • Erectile dysfunction or other sexual issues
  • Nighttime sweating unrelated to another condition (e.g., menopause)
  • High blood pressure

Common risk factors include obesity, gender (men are diagnosed more frequently), and comorbid conditions (e.g., diabetes and hypertension). People with large tongues, small jaws, and large adenoids or tonsils are also at increased risk of obstructive sleep apnea.

More than a minor annoyance, undiagnosed and untreated sleep apnea can lead to stroke, cardiovascular issues, and even sudden death.

How can a sleep apnea dentist help?

A sleep apnea dentist does more than just keep your teeth clean. They can also help diagnose and treat the symptoms of sleep apnea.

You may not consider your dentist a first-line provider of a sleep apnea diagnosis, but they might be the first healthcare provider to connect the symptomatic dots. So how do they do it?

1. They notice when you grind your teeth

Bruxism may be the number one cause of damage to teeth, but it’s also a good warning sign of sleep apnea.

Although not everyone who grinds their teeth has sleep apnea (and not everyone with sleep apnea grinds their teeth), excessive wear on teeth may indicate that the way the brain reminds sleepers to breathe is to wake them with a sudden clenched jaw and teeth grinding together.

2. They ask about snoring

You may not consider going to a sleep apnea dentist for snoring, but snoring is one of the primary indicators of potential sleep apnea.

3. They consider the anatomy of your mouth

As noted above, patients with small jaws and tonsils or adenoids that are larger (relative to the size of their mouth) are at risk of sleep apnea.

Without other symptoms, these anatomical issues may not present any problems, but your dentist can monitor them over time.

4. They connect poor oral health with underlying conditions

People with sleep apnea usually breathe with their mouths open. Dry mouth is directly related to an increase in cavities and can indicate the possibility of sleep apnea. Additionally, your sleep apnea dentist will notice a red throat that is unrelated to a current cold or infection. An irritated throat is another sign of mouth breathing, again connected to cavities, and potentially sleep apnea.

In the end, a sleep apnea dentist who notices symptoms of sleep apnea will refer their patients to a sleep clinic for a full diagnostic test called a polysomn