Treating sleep apnea: The role of dentists, primary care physicians

Obesity is a global epidemic well rooted in the U.S. and Western cultures. With recognition of the magnitude of this epidemic, it is important to promote obesity prevention by all health professions and disciplines. This will help to prevent further health complications, such as diabetes, heart disease and obstructive sleep apnea, as well as other sleep-related breathing disorders (SRBD).

When a person struggles to breathe during sleep, or stops breathing, additional stress is placed on the heart, leading to health risks. To further improve the health of our patients, dentists should work with primary care physicians (PCP). Here is why.

Screening for sleep apnea

Dentists and primary care physicians are the first line of detection and treatment for their patients. As a dentist, you see your patients more frequently than physicians. This is especially true when patients adhere to the recommended cleaning every six months. PCPs  often see their patients more frequently than physician specialists, such as cardiologists, neurologists, pulmonologists, etc.

Both dentists and PCPs have the opportunity to discuss a variety of concerns that affect their patients’ quality of life, well-being and potential health risks. A large number of patients with undetected and untreated sleep disorders pass through dental and PCP offices each day. For this reason, it is important to complete advanced training and continuing education courses. This will help you to better understand how best to embed practical assessments and referrals into routine care.

Dentists and PCPs should work with a referral system. This links the patient with a proper specialist for diagnosis, as well as treatment. They can also educate and consult the patient about healthy lifestyle choices to reduce risk factors associated with obesity and SRBD.

Evidence-based treatment of sleep apnea

After a diagnosis is made, the medical sleep specialist can recommend treatment. Possible treatment might include weight loss, positional therapy, continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), oral appliance therapy or surgery. Combination therapy is also common to provide individualized treatment for the patient. This often includes CPAP with oral appliance therapy. When a dentist receives proper training and credentialing, they can effectively treat patients using oral appliance therapy.

Patients should receive ongoing reinforcement for healthy behaviors during routine office visits. This is regardless of the treatment or health professional overseeing treatment.