Sleep apnoea is a potentially serious condition that can be life-threatening in severe cases. Fortunately, most dentists are trained to identify and help deal with the problem.
I first became interested in sleep apnoea due to patients who had long appointments. They may have had a 90-minute appointment to be fitted with a crown created by our Cerec machine, and they fell asleep in the chair. Initially, I thought it was great they were so relaxed at the dentist but then I started considering sleep apnoea. If a person suffers from sleep apnoea, they have very bad quality sleep during the night. These patients were nodding off in the chair simply because they were lying down for a period of time.
What happens with sleep apnoea?
Sleep apnoea is a medical condition that’s quite frightening. During a sleep study, it has been shown that a sufferer’s heart can stop up to 60 times per hour. That leads to all sorts of potential problems including heart attack. Broken sleep, loss of libido and irritability are just a few of the side effects of sleep apnoea.
If I suspect a patient has sleep apnoea, I encourage them to have a sleep study. A GP will refer the patient to a sleep physician who can undertake the sleep study in a clinical area where they spend the night.
The other option is to take home some specialised monitors and do the sleep study in your own bedroom. Sensors are strapped to your chest and around your body, and you sleep with them attached. Once the monitor is returned to the sleep specialist, they download the findings and make a diagnosis.
If the results show the patient is in the severe category, they need to be treated by a specialist. If they are in the medium or lower category, we can help.
Treating mild cases of sleep apnoea
We treat sleep apnoea by creating a pair of bespoke devices that look like mouthguards. Worn while sleeping, they push the bottom jaw forward to keep the airway open.
It does take a little time to get used to wearing the devices. The mouth is a rigorous piece of machinery so you need something with a little bit of strength and bulk. I encourage my patients to wear the device for 10 days straight to create a habit. Once they’ve got the habit, everything works fine.
When these devices are used in the right way, they really work. They're a simple way of keeping the airway open and contributing to the patient’s health.
Helping patients and partners
Not only do these devices give the patient a good night’s sleep, they also improve the sleep quality of the patient’s partner. We recently made a device for a patient who was a chronic snorer. He was very happy with the result and so was his wife! When she visited for her regular dental appointment, she mentioned that her husband was sleeping beautifully and not snoring at all. She was very happy. “Those mouthguards saved our marriage,” she said.