Sleep Apnea MouthpieceThe next time you hit your sleep mate with a pillow—or are hit yourself—think of Shaquille O’Neal. Okay, give us a chance to explain. A major skill required by almost all professional athletes is being focused and alert, but the 7’1” NBA star “Shaq” was left in the dark at game time. He wasn’t getting as much quality sleep as he thought, which led to drowsiness and fatigue throughout the daytime. He is not alone: millions of Americans don’t get enough sleep or suffer from acute or chronic sleep problems throughout the night. It is very common for people with sleep issues to be completely unaware of their abnormal behavior, often times leaving it up to their bed partners to identify a problem. Which brings us back to our pillow…

Startled at first by his loud snoring, Shaq’s girlfriend at the time wrestled him awake when she noticed that his breathing had stopped. The two of them sought help from a sleep physician and it was confirmed that he indeed had Sleep Apnea. This potentially deadly sleep disorder–in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts–can be categorized in two ways: Obstructive sleep apnea (the more common form) that occurs when throat muscles relax and Central sleep apnea when your brain doesn’t send proper signals to the muscles that control breathing.

Lighting soothing candles, nixing caffeine and turning off the television before bed are all positive lifestyle modifications that we could all adopt to establish a relaxing bedtime routine. Unfortunately, curing sleep apnea requires a more direct approach. Dentists focusing on sleep disorders can prescribe Oral Appliance Therapy (OAT); the troubled sleeper wears a custom-made mouthpiece that shifts the lower jaw forward, thus opening up the airway. These orthopedic appliances are worn during sleep to keep the soft tissue from collapsing and interrupting normal breathing patterns. OAT can be used alone or in conjunction with other means of therapy, such as continuous positive air pressure (CPAP), a mask-like device that helps stimulate airflow. Many people have found the OAT dental devices to be more comfortable and easier to use than CPAP.

Shaq may not have been alert to sleep apnea, but you can be. Taking steps to preventing sleep apnea will improve your quality of sleep giving you more energy to enjoy each day. If you snore, are exhausted after a decent night’s sleep, or have been told that you have sleep apnea, we encourage you to discuss your options with a dentist. They may help you get that good night’s sleep you are craving.