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How a Device in Your Mouth Could Treat Snoring and Sleep Apnea

If you snore, it’s not just a problem for your bed partner. Snoring can be a sign of sleep apnea, which is a serious health condition. The gold standard for treating sleep apnea is a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. But some people can’t tolerate a CPAP, or don’t want to use one. 

In some cases, a device you place in your mouth, called an oral appliance, could help alleviate your sleep apnea symptoms so you get the rest you need. “Most people don’t know they have the option of oral or dental appliances to treat sleep apnea,” said Imran Patel, DMD, a dental sleep medicine and orofacial pain specialist at Banner - University Medical Center Tucson. We talked to Dr. Patel to learn more about the pros and cons of these oral appliance therapy treatment options.

How do you know if an oral appliance is right for you? 

To start, you’ll probably have a sleep study to find out what’s causing your snoring. If you have sleep apnea, it could be one of three types:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) happens when the muscles in your throat relax, causing your airway to get narrower. You have to work harder to breathe through this narrow airway, and sometimes you stop breathing.
  • Central sleep apnea occurs when the brain doesn’t tell your body to breathe properly while you’re sleeping.
  • Mixed sleep apnea is a combination of the two.

Only obstructive sleep apnea is treated with oral appliances. For the other types, you’ll need to consider other treatments. Whatever kind of sleep apnea you have, it’s vital to seek treatment. The condition is linked to heart attacks, stroke, heart failure, heart rhythm disorders, and high blood pressure. Plus, the fatigue you feel from living with sleep apnea could cause accidents.

If you’re diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea, you and your doctor can talk about the pros and cons of CPAPs and oral appliances.

How do oral appliances work?

“Oral appliances open up the airway by holding the lower jaw forward,” Dr. Patel said. So, when the muscles and soft tissue in the back of your throat relax, they don’t make your airway get as narrow.

How effective are oral appliances?

For mild sleep apnea, they are as effective as a CPAP machine. For moderate to severe sleep apnea, they aren’t as good, but they can be an option for people who aren’t able to use a CPAP machine.

What are the pros?

Oral appliances are easier to use than CPAP machines because no tubes or wires are involved. They don’t need electricity. “People tend to use them consistently for years,” Dr. Patel said.

What are the cons?

The main downsides of these dental devices are that over time they could potentially move your teeth, and they may cause jaw pain.

What types of oral appliances are available?

There are two main types of these devices:

  • Custom-made oral appliances, which are custom fit over your upper and lower teeth and can be adjusted to hold your jaw forward. When you aren’t using the appliance, your jaw and bite return to normal.
  • Over-the-counter oral appliances, which are sometimes referred to as the boil-and-bite kind of oral appliances, based on how they are fitted to your teeth. They may cause more side effects than the custom-made appliances.

In addition, tongue-retaining devices can be an option for people who don’t have teeth. They hold your tongue forward, out of your mouth.

If you choose an oral appliance, a dentist trained in using these devices to treat sleep apnea can help you get fitted. After the fitting, you’ll likely have another sleep study to make sure the appliance is working effectively.

Does insurance cover oral appliances?

They are typically covered by medical insurance, not dental insurance, if you need them to treat obstructive sleep apnea. They likely won’t be covered to treat snoring that’s not caused by sleep apnea. Of course, you should check with your insurance provider to find out what coverage they provide and whether any copays or deductibles will affect your costs.

The bottom line

Obstructive sleep apnea is a serious health condition that needs to be treated. Take our sleep apnea risk assessment to learn if you could be at risk. While a CPAP machine may be the leading option, oral appliances could be a good choice for you. To connect with a health care professional who can diagnose and treat your sleep apnea, reach out to Banner Health.

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