Sleep Troubles: How Your Dentist Can Help With Sleep Disorders

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Did You Know Your Dentist Can Help With Sleep Disorders?

Need one more reason why visiting the dentist regularly is a good idea? Here you go: according to new research, your tongue and tonsils can provide important information about your sleep habits. This means that your dentist could be the first to catch a previously unnoticed, yet potentially dangerous, condition like sleep apnea.

What is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA, occurs when the upper part of your airways becomes blocked. Breathing will stop and start throughout the night, depriving you of good sleep. In less severe cases, this leads to people feeling fatigued, irritated and distracted throughout the day.

In particularly bad cases of sleep apnea, OSA can lead to much more serious health effects. OSA patients are at a higher risk for heart attacks, congestive heart failure, cardiac arrhythmia, stroke, and depression, and sometimes suffer from learning and memory disorders. Good sleep is crucial to our mental and overall physical health, so if if it’s being disrupted by a condition like sleep apnea, we’re likely to experience a host of negative effects.

The biggest problem with sleep apnea is how rarely it gets diagnosed promptly. In general, there’s a lack of awareness surrounding the disorder’s symptoms and seriousness. And while it’s commonly thought to only affect older, overweight people, the truth is that anyone can suffer from sleep apnea. Too many people chalk up their chronic fatigue to being too busy or stressed, without every considering that it could be caused by a serious, yet treatable, medical condition. Many people are very surprised when they finally receive the diagnosis that they have OSA.

How Can the Dentist Help?

Certain oral features are dead giveaways for OSA, namely, swollen tonsils and markings on the tongue. The markings are actually indentations from the teeth pressing on the sides of the tongue — a larger than normal tongue is a key symptom of OSA.

During a routine dental exam the dentist often examines the tongue and gets a good look at the tonsils. The researchers behind this study, conducted by the University of Dammam in Saudia Arabia, see a great opportunity for early diagnosis of sleep apnea. They’re getting behind a push to educate dental students about these telltale symptoms and have a check for them included in every biannual visit to the dentist’s office.

People might be unlikely to visit their general practitioner’s office over what they might perceive as just a little sleepiness, but they will (or at least, they should) visit the dentist once or twice a year for their cleaning and routine exam. Dentists won’t be able to make a full diagnosis of OSA, but if they recognize the telltale signs, they can refer their patient to a specialist for a second opinion, complete diagnosis, and treatment plan.

Of course, all this hinges on people actually scheduling those twice-yearly checkups. If you’re not already convinced about the importance of getting your regular exams and cleanings, yet you’ve been feeling tired lately, take note: that dentist visit could be the first step toward receiving important information about the state of your overall health.

My name is Jeremy Rourke. I’m part of a family of dentists with my father, brother, cousin and nephew also being dentists. I won a University of Sydney Dental Alumni prize for being the top student in my year and graduated with Honours in 1971. I have been a Registered dentist for over 40 years. In that time I have created a few “firsts” in my efforts to stay ahead.

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