Having trouble sleeping? This small oral appliance may help you get some zzz’s

This image shows a man using an uncomfortable CPAP machine to treat sleep apnea disorders along with an oral appliance that may be more comfortable and convenient used to treat similar conditions. The appliance can be custom made at Gateway Oral Health Center in St. George, Utah, image date not specified | Image courtsy of Gateway Oral Health Center, St. George News

FEATURE It is no secret that getting enough sleep is vital to a person’s health. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that healthy adults get between seven and nine hours of sleep each night for optimal sleep health.

Gateway Oral Health Center custom makes an oral appliance to help with sleep disorders. This image shows the appliance and business information, St. George, Utah | Images courtesy of Gateway Oral Health Center, St. George News

Conversely, those who don’t get the recommended amount of rest are at risk of possibly dangerous health complications.

For people suffering from sleep apnea disorders, the dangers can even become life-threatening.

The Mayo Clinic defines sleep apnea as a potentially dangerous sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts. A person may have sleep apnea if they snore loudly and experience feeling tired even after a full night’s sleep.

There are three main types of sleep apnea which the Mayo Clinic lists as follows:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea, the more common form that occurs when throat muscles relax.
  • Central sleep apnea, which occurs when your brain doesn’t send proper signals to the muscles that control breathing.
  • Complex sleep apnea syndrome, also known as treatment-emergent central sleep apnea, occurs when someone has both obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea.

Dr. Bryce Eagar, an oral health care professional and dentist at Gateway Oral Health Center in St. George is helping patients who suffer from sleep apnea disorders get better rest with a small oral appliance that helps a person breathe easier at night.

Signs of sleep apnea

“At the very beginning of all these issues is snoring,” Eagar said.

While people generally accept snoring as a natural and not typically dangerous part of a person’s sleep, he said, snoring is often the gateway to sleep disorders.

When a person snores, the airway constricts and the soft tissues vibrate. If a person gains weight or has a combination of medical complications it is most likely they will develop full-blown sleep apnea.

In addition to snoring, there are other red flags or signs that a person is developing a sleep apnea disorder. Some of the signs include the following:

  • Acid reflux.
  • Gasping and choking sounds at night.
  • Lack of energy during the day.
  • Depression.
  • Forgetfulness.
  • Recurring insomnia.

For anyone experiencing these signs, Eagar recommends visiting a sleep specialist to have a screening done. A physician who specializes in sleep will be able to diagnose the severity of the sleep disorder and make proper recommendations and referrals, which may include referrals to Eagar and his staff.

Dangers of sleep apnea

Eagar’s foray into studying sleep apnea began several years ago when he noticed that his wife was suffering from daytime fatigue and sleep problems.

“She was starting to fall asleep in the afternoon driving the kids around,” Eagar said. “She would pull up to a red light and fall asleep.”

Information from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that drowsy driving – the dangerous combination of driving and sleepiness or fatigue – is a major problem in America. It is most commonly caused by a person not getting enough sleep but can also be caused by untreated sleep disorders among other factors.

Read more: Drowsy driving crash rate 8 times higher than estimated, study shows

In terms of a person’s overall health, sleep apnea can cause several other dangerous conditions, Eagar said. Some of those conditions are high blood pressure, strokes, heart attacks, diabetes, metabolic disorders, chronic acid reflux, erectile dysfunction, dementia, nocturia, anxiety, weight gain and the possibility of death.

“If your oxygen levels go too low for too long you can pass away,” Eagar said.

During obstructive apnea, the soft tissue or tongue collapses and reduces or closes off the airway. When the body senses that decrease in oxygen, Eagar said, it goes into a fight or flight response to try to stay alive and breathe.

During fight or flight, a series of reactions occur: Adrenaline is pumped throughout the bloodstream; pulse rises; the brain is unable to store memories; the diaphragm begins to pump to try to get oxygen, which causes stomach acids to burn up the esophagus and land in the mouth or lungs; teeth grind; the tongue thrusts to try and open the airway; stress hormones are released; and sugars flood the bloodstream.

This process happens many times a night, not only disrupting sleep but causing myriad other physical and mental health complications and sometimes death.

Options for treating sleep apnea

There are a few options Eagar identifies for treatment of sleep apnea disorders.

One therapy is the use of a continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, machine. It comprises a mask or nose piece and a hose which delivers continuous air pressure. The machines are prescribed by a physician and are used primarily for obstructive sleep apnea disorders. Though CPAP machines have been used for treating sleep apnea disorders for several decades, Eagar said many patients who use them find them uncomfortable to wear and limit sleeping positions at night.

Another option is the surgical removal of excessive tissue from the soft palate and pharynx, Eagar said. These surgeries can get aggressive, include long healing times and the risk of uncomfortable side effects.

Eagar purposes to try and reduce the amount of surgeries needed and increase the patient’s airway in a convenient, easy manner.

Enter: an oral appliance.

An oral appliance is a custom-made appliance that fits over the teeth and adjusts and moves the lower jaw and tongue forward to keep the airway open all night. The advantages of an appliance over the CPAP machine are that a person is able to sleep in more positions and avoid uncomfortable masks and hoses that make loud hissing noises and often leak air. The appliance is easily portable making travel more convenient as well. There are some mild side effects from the use of the appliance including minor tooth movement and muscle or joint pain as a patient adjusts to wearing it. But, Eagar said, an experienced team can help a patient navigate the side effects.

While looking for ways to help his wife, Eagar said, he extensively studied sleep disorders and he has since been custom making the oral appliance in his office for about two years.

If a person is experiencing any signs of developing  sleep apnea, Eagar encourages them to visit a physician who specializes in sleep disorders to see if an oral appliance is right for them.

About Gateway Oral Health Center

Gateway Oral Health Center was established 16 years ago as a general dentistry practice. The founding dentist retired about four years ago and Eagar has been the sole dentist at the practice ever since.

Eagar and his staff believe that the mouth is the gateway to the body and health, he said. A self-proclaimed dental nerd, Eagar is both a general dentist and oral health care professional. He cares about his patients, he said, and being up-to-date on the latest dental and oral health technologies.

At Gateway Oral Health Center they offer a variety of dental services including preventative, emergency and cosmetic care. The office also focuses on sleep health by treating sleep apnea disorders with the use of an oral appliance.

For more information or to schedule an appointment call Gateway Oral Health Center at 435-656-0507 or visit them online.

Written by HOLLIE REINA, St. George News.

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