Sleep apnea and your dentist: A dental visit is a proactive approach to overall health

Solving issues such as sleep apnea is just one reason why regular oral exams are important.

Steve Fulford’s wife was fed up. Each morning, she woke up exhausted after hearing her husband snore loudly all night. Fulford himself wasn’t much better off, waking up unrested but believing the snoring was just a part of age advancement.

Having previously reported difficulty breathing and sleeping, Fulford had his uvula removed, a common procedure to treat snoring or some sleep apnea symptoms. Two years later, the excessive snoring returned, revealing that the underlying problem still existed.

After a clinical test confirmed sleep apnea, a disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts, Fulford visited dentist Dr. Mark McCullough of Capital Dentistry for an oral exam. During the visit, he was surprised to learn the ways that oral health practitioners can provide support in maintaining one’s overall health.

“To think that a dentist can help you sleep better never occurred to me,” says Fulford. “Mark was able to not only see evidence of the sleep apnea during the oral exam, but he also analyzed my sleep test results and outfitted me with an oral appliance that worked instantaneously. Situations like mine are a good reason why people should go to the dentist regularly, it’s not just about your teeth and gums.”

Because Fulford’s sleep apnea was mild to moderate, the oral appliance, which is akin to a mouthguard, sets his jaw slightly forward each night to ensure the soft tissue won’t collapse his airway, resulting in a snore-free and restful sleep. Dr. McCullough says once he spots signs of a condition such as sleep apnea, he asks patients about their sleep hygiene to determine next steps.

“The protective enamel shell on our teeth is about one millimetre to 1½ mm thick,” he explains. “One sign of sleep apnea, for example, is the dissolving of that enamel.

“When someone’s airways get blocked and they gasp for air, as happens with sleep apnea, there’s acid that comes up and causes that to occur. Once you know what you’re looking for, you can determine the course of action and, of course, monitor the patient after the recommended treatment.”

Fulford explains the ease of the procedure: “I was surprised that Mark was able to actually take care of the entire process of fitting me for the oral appliance I use. I just had to follow up with my sleep specialist to get it adjusted once and that was it.”

‘To think that a dentist can help you sleep better never occurred to me,’ one patient says of his experience at Capital Dentistry.

Sleep apnea is just one of many conditions dentists can uncover during routine oral exams, which are recommended biannually. In addition to sleep apnea, Dr. McCullough has most commonly come across acid reflux issues, oral cancer and poor nutrition habits. He also says dentists discover many systemic diseases, such as diabetes, with symptoms that occur through oral health.

“MDs don’t spend any time in the mouth and their practice is often symptomatic driven,” he says. “They take into account signs and symptoms a patient brings up. An oral exam is a proactive rather than reactive approach to health because we do a full look-around at the teeth and all the soft issue as well as checking lymph nodes and taking X-rays to check bone levels.”

While sleep apnea may show up as dissolved enamel alongside issues such as gingivitis or periodontal disease, nutritional issues, for example, can be seen in gum inflammation, tongue health, plaque buildup on and in between the teeth as well as in bone health.

Diabetes, meanwhile, may present through bone loss, inflamed and sore soft tissue around the teeth, impaired and/or delayed wound healing and dry mouth. However, because these symptoms can also be indicators of much lesser issues, Dr. McCullough warns against self-diagnosing.

“Google MD can be your worst nightmare because for every symptom you can find a gloom and doom scenario,” he says. “Plaque buildup, for example, could be something as simple as needing to floss more. Even if you’re in for a cleaning, dental hygienists are also trained to spot issues, so you are covered from various angles.”

Patients who experience an issue in between appointments, Dr. McCullough suggests, should first ensure it wasn’t caused by something within their control, such as biting into a too-hot slice of pizza, which can take time to heal.

“If you’re losing sleep because you’re in pain or something is beyond normal and you don’t have a reason why it happened, make an appointment with your dentist,” he says. “But, generally, going to a dentist regularly is a great way to monitor your overall heath and correct any issues quickly.”