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February 4, 2019

What is a sleep dentist and how can they help you?

The field of sleep dentistry is a fast-emerging area of dental practice. Sleep dentists work in conjunction with physicians who specialize in sleep medicine to help identify and treat their patients with the best techniques available. Dentists who practice dental sleep medicine focus on using custom-fit oral appliances to treat conditions like snoring and sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is the second most common sleep disorder after insomnia. In the United States alone, sleep apnea affects 1 in 4 adult men and 1 in 9 adult women, and the deficits it can create are far-reaching. Varying degrees of cognitive, emotional, job-related and school-related performance issues are linked to sleep apnea. It is also a risk factor for dementia, depression, stroke, heart attack, and other chronic illnesses.

Sleep disorders are significantly underdiagnosed — up to 80% of those with sleep apnea have never been tested.  While there are about 6,000 board-certified sleep doctors in the United States, there are also 3,300 AADSM certified sleep dentists.  Together, these groups can collaborate to provide optimal care for patients.

Decades of research and patient experience with sleep apnea have taught us that there is no  one-size-fits-all solution for effectively treating sleep apnea for everyone. What works well for some, may not work for others.  What is tolerated by some, may not be tolerated by others.  Positional therapy requires the patient to sleep on their side throughout the night, and wearing a CPAP mask every night isn’t tolerated well by everyone. As a result, roughly half of those who are prescribed a CPAP eventually stop using it.

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A sleep dentist is well-positioned to help identify sleep apnea

A sleep dentist can perform an initial evaluation help you understand your risk for sleep apnea  This typically involves a series of questions as well as an examination of the patient’s airway.

Since sleep apnea is a medical condition, it is not within a dentist’s training to diagnose something like a sleep disorder. Practiced sleep dentists will have a network of expert sleep physicians that they can refer you to should they see the need to move forward.  The sleep physician can further evaluate you and make a diagnosis of sleep apnea or another condition as appropriate. Some sleep dentists’ offices will help provide the Home Sleep Test equipment, then the results will be reviewed by a sleep physician for diagnosis.

If the need for an oral sleep apnea appliance is determined, the doctor will write a prescription for one. Next, the dentist will fit you for an appliance to treat your sleep apnea. These custom mouthguards are made of advanced plastics and formed using digital or physical impressions of your teeth and mouth.

How oral appliance therapy works

Oral appliance therapy is recommended for patients who have mild to moderate cases of sleep apnea and for all diagnosed patients if other therapy is unsuccessful or refused. Worn during sleep, the appliance gently advances the lower jaw to help keep your airway open. It also helps keep your tongue from falling back into your airway and contributing to sleep apnea. Oral appliance therapy is recommended for patients who have mild to moderate cases of sleep apnea. Once you’re using an oral appliance, the sleep dentist and doctor will co-manage your treatment. Successful sleep care is a team sport, and both the sleep dentist and the sleep doctor are key players on the team. You may revisit the dentist for further fittings and adjustments, and you might also have follow-up appointments with a doctor to monitor the success of the treatment.

So, how does someone get into the field of sleep dentistry? As the role of dentistry in treating sleep disorders is becoming more significant, dentists must complete special supplemental education before they can provide safe, quality oral appliance therapy as a treatment for patients with sleep disordered breathing.  

The American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine (AADSM) is the leading national organization representing dentists who treat sleep-disordered breathing, and the American Board of Dental Sleep Medicine offers accreditation. The AADSM currently has 3,300 members who are certified dental sleep specialists, and this membership grows every year.  

Find a sleep dentist

You can look up a qualified sleep dentist in your area here.