AADSM encourages dentists to help identify patients at-risk for sleep apnea

American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine
Monday, May 2, 2016

DARIEN, IL - More than any other profession, dentists are well-positioned to help identify the growing population of people who are at-risk for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), and put them on the path to better sleep and better health. OSA is one of the most concerning health problems today, yet the vast majority of sufferers remain undiagnosed. If left untreated, OSA is a potentially life-threatening condition that can increase the risk for serious health problems from heart disease, memory loss and diabetes to stroke, impotence and depression.

“Dentists already have the patient relationships and tools to really make a difference in the lives of the millions of people who don’t know that they are suffering from sleep apnea,” said Kathleen Bennett, DDS, president of the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine (AADSM). “Dentists routinely see patients every six to 12 months, which gives us regular opportunities to perform an intraoral and upper airway examination while also asking sleep-related questions to help assess their risk for obstructive sleep apnea.”

Sleep apnea, characterized by loud snoring, occurs when the tongue and soft palate collapse onto the back of the throat, which blocks the upper airway and obstructs breathing up to hundreds of times a night. The skill set acquired during dental training makes evaluating patients for potential OSA an easy, essential way for dentists to increase the awareness of the disease and help potential sufferers pursue diagnosis. There are two ways dentists can integrate obstructive sleep apnea conversations into patients’ visits: identifying at-risk patients and treating diagnosed patients with oral appliance therapy.

Identifying At-Risk Patients
By combining a traditional intraoral exam with an upper airway evaluation, a dentist can identify key physical attributes that correlate with sleep-disordered breathing, such as a large tongue or a long soft palate. Dentists also can ask patients simple questions about snoring or daytime sleepiness, or they can use a validated questionnaire, such as STOP-Bang, to identify patients with a high risk of OSA.

For those needing a basic understanding of OSA and its symptoms, the AADSM provides a variety of courses and resources, such as its online learning module, “Introduction to Sleep and Sleep Disordered Breathing.” This 40-minute, web-based module can be viewed from the comfort of home at any time of day and provides an overview of the nature and physiology of sleep as well as the causes, risk factors and consequences of OSA.

“With so many untreated sleep apnea sufferers at risk of serious comorbidities, such as heart disease and stroke, we need to learn how to recognize the warning signs for the disorder,” said Bennett. “Dentists can increase sleep apnea awareness by identifying at-risk patients and referring those with symptoms to a sleep physician for diagnosis.”

OSA is a serious medical disorder that must be diagnosed by a physician. Once symptoms are identified, dentists should advise patients to see a sleep physician for further evaluation. By simply referring patients to an accredited sleep disorders center, dentists can put them on the path to improved sleep and health. Paying attention to sleep-disordered breathing is an easy way for dentists to strengthen patient relationships by demonstrating that they care about their patients’ general well-being.

Dentists also have an opportunity to expand their practice by offering full-scale dental sleep medicine services. However, the treatment of OSA involves substantially more education and training in order for dentists to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills to provide optimal patient care through dental sleep medicine.

Treating with Oral Appliance Therapy
A growing number of dentists are choosing dental sleep medicine as a way to expand their practices and help patients. Not only is OSA prevalent and under-diagnosed, but only about half of patients adhere to the first-line treatment, continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy. An oral appliance that is custom-fit by a dentist is an effective alternative to CPAP. Oral appliances prevent the airway from collapsing by supporting the jaw in a forward position. There are currently more than 100 FDA-cleared oral appliances available, and oral appliance therapy is often covered by medical insurance, including Medicare. Most patients prefer oral appliances to CPAP because they are comfortable, quiet, portable and easy to care for.

Once a patient is diagnosed with OSA and prescribed oral appliance therapy by a physician, qualified dentists can provide treatment. The dentist will evaluate the patient’s teeth, jaw and airway, determine the protrusive range with a measuring device and select the appropriate oral appliance to increase the patient’s treatment success.

“Treating sleep apnea patients is rewarding, and I often hear from patients that my help improved their sleep and turned their lives around – lifting their mood and energizing their body,” said Bennett. “By providing dental sleep medicine services, dentists can benefit patients who are unable to tolerate CPAP and may otherwise go untreated.”

For those interested in making the career move to treat obstructive sleep apnea, the AADSM recommends starting with its “Essentials of Dental Sleep Medicine” course, which is held several times a year in multiple major U.S. cities. Ideal for dentists who are new to dental sleep medicine, this in-person course gives an overview of OSA and treatment options, with a focus on oral appliance therapy. The course will guide participants through the process of getting started in the field of dental sleep medicine.

To learn more about AADSM educational offerings, visit the “Education and Practice” section of the AADSM website at http://www.aadsm.org/EducationCareer.aspx.

About The American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine
The American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine (AADSM) is the only non-profit national professional society dedicated exclusively to the practice of dental sleep medicine. The AADSM provides educational resources for dentists and promotes the use of oral appliance therapy for the treatment of obstructive sleep apnea and sleep-disordered breathing. Established in 1991, the AADSM has more than 3,000 member dentists worldwide. Visit www.aadsm.org or call the national office at (630) 737-9705 for more information.

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