Can Dentists Treat Sleep Apnea?

Receiving a diagnosis of sleep apnea can be traumatic. Many people are unaware that they even have it. More than 30 million Americans are affected by this disorder, which causes potentially dangerous changes to the breathing pattern as a person sleeps. But are there treatments available, and can dentists treat sleep apnea?

The field of dental sleep medicine specializes in the treatment of sleep-disordered breathing. Dentists trained in this field are board-certified to use oral appliance therapy to treat various sleep and breathing disorders, including sleep apnea. The skilled team at Great Lakes Dental can help you identify and treat sleep apnea symptoms and various airway obstructed issues.

What is Sleep Apnea, and why is it so Dangerous?

Sleep apnea occurs when the airways in the upper respiratory tract fail to take in enough air. These squeezed airways prevent the lungs from taking in enough air. These breathing interruptions disrupt the body's ability to get deep, nourishing sleep. This process can repeat hundreds of times per night for people with sleep apnea. 

Good sleep is essential for good overall health

Routinely getting a good night's sleep is just as vital to a healthy body as exercise and eating a healthy diet. While the body is sleeping, the brain completes essential maintenance tasks that it cannot complete the body is while awake and active. These tasks include repairs to body cells, ridding the brain and body of toxic waste, and balancing hormones and proteins throughout the body. 

Over time, the neglect of these jobs can have disastrous effects on the body. Lack of quality sleep due to sleep disorders places a person at higher risk for developing heart conditions, diabetes, and hypertension. 

In the short term, however, those suffering from untreated sleep apnea may experience brain fog, mood swings, and lost productivity at work or school. Waking up with a headache or dry mouth and loud snoring are signs of sleep apnea.

Types and Causes of Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is sometimes called sleep-disordered breathing. There are a few types of the disorder depending on the cause, obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. Your doctor or dentist is well-versed in telling the difference, and the treatment often depends on the cause of the problem.

Central Sleep Apnea

Central sleep apnea is a signaling problem with the brain. The messages that control the muscles responsible for breathing are not received correctly. This miscommunication results in a disrupted breathing pattern during sleep. 

Some people experience central sleep apnea when sleeping at a high altitude, and for others, it can be the result of a stroke or heart problems. Treatment for this condition will often depend on the reason for the symptoms. 

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

The relaxation of the soft tissues of the mouth and upper respiratory tract causes obstructive sleep apnea. This relaxation causes a reduction in breathing and airflow. While a signaling issue causes central sleep apnea, the cause of obstructive sleep apnea can be much more complex. 

Risks for obstructive sleep apnea include a prior history of hypertension, smoking, diabetes, and increased age. For unknown reasons, males tend to be at higher risk than females Risk also increases with a BMI over 25.

Role of Dental Sleep Medicine in Sleep Apnea Treatment

The practice of dental sleep medicine is a relatively new dental specialty. According to the website, the only nationally recognized non-profit association dedicated to dental sleep medicine established itself in 1991 to study, practice, and treat certain sleep disorders. 

The CPAP (Continuous positive airway pressure) machine was the standard treatment for sleep apnea in the early 1990s. But many patients complained that the machines were loud and uncomfortable to wear. The CPAP machine requires daily cleaning and disinfection for safe use. This cleansing process can be cumbersome and time-consuming, especially while traveling.

Untreated sleep apnea places patients' health at risk. For some people, the list of drawbacks to the CPAP machine makes it impractical for daily use as prescribed by a medical professional. These patients are less likely to use the machine for treatment as often as they should, making them more likely to go without treatment. 

Advantages of Oral Appliance Therapy

Dentists involved with the early dental sleep medicine organization devised a new treatment for obstructive sleep apnea using an oral therapy appliance (OTA) that substantially reduced or eliminated many of the negative issues patients expressed with the CPAP machine. 

Oral appliance therapy consists of a retainer-like device worn in the mouth as a person sleeps. The oral appliance improves sleep quality while reducing sleep apnea, much like the CPAP machine but without the noise and intrusive headgear. 

Traveling with an oral appliance is considerably more manageable than traveling with a CPAP machine. The device does not require electricity to function, and the daily disinfection process is much more streamlined. 

Getting Started with Your Oral Therapy Appliance

Getting set up with your oral therapy appliance is a simple process that most insurance companies cover. The first step is setting up a consultation with a dental sleep professional to discuss any symptoms you’re experiencing and any diagnosis you have currently. 

Assuming there is no current diagnosis, the next step is to order a sleep test or sleep study. This part of the process is completely painless and will provide valuable data on what happens with your breathing and brain activity while sleeping. 

Armed with this data, the dental sleep medicine professional will recommend a care plan and prescribe a custom oral therapy appliance to treat sleep apnea. The device should arrive in the office in a few weeks. 

When the appliance arrives, you will revisit the dentist for a final fitting and address any needed adjustments. When leaving your dentist's office with your customized oral therapy appliance, you should prepare for a fantastic night's rest. 


The most effective treatment for sleep apnea is the one you will use. If the treatment is too time-consuming and uncomfortable, the chances of long-term success diminish significantly. A custom oral therapy appliance fitted by a trained dental sleep professional substantially increases the odds for successful long-term treatment.