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What Is an Oral Appliance?

By Madeleine A.
Updated May 17, 2024
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An oral appliance is a device that is placed inside the mouth to reposition the oral cavity in an attempt to resolve sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is a condition where a person stops breathing multiple times while sleeping. Many people who snore have sleep apnea, though not all of them do. Traditionally, a machine known as a continuous positive airway pressure machine (CPAP) is commonly used to correct sleep apnea and prevent gasping and choking.

One type of oral appliance repositions the tongue so that it does not block the airway. This particular oral appliance pulls the individual's tongue forward, facilitating breathing by freeing the airway. Another type of oral appliance helps to reposition the mandible or jaw. A sleep specialist physician or dentist can determine the best oral appliance for the patient.

Prior to recommending an oral appliance or other treatment for sleep apnea, a sleep study is typically done. The sleep study can determine the extent of the sleep apnea and can determine how many times the patient stops breathing while sleeping. Generally, a sleep study is performed in a hospital sleep lab, and typically it is done at night. People with very severe cases of sleep apnea are usually not candidates for oral appliances, but usually do well with airway pressure machines, or CPAP machines.

Untreated sleep apnea can result in daytime sleepiness and may put people at risk for car accidents. In addition, sleep apnea can also contribute to high blood pressure and increase the risk for heart attack and stroke. There are home remedies that can be considered that may help reduce the incidence of sleep apnea and lessen the severity of episodes. Remedies such as losing weight and avoiding alcohol can help improve symptoms, as can sleeping on the side, and treating sinus problems.

Oral appliances can be effective alternatives to breathing devices and usually do not cause side effects that are common to CPAP machines. These machines can cause nose bleeds, sinus infections, morning headaches, and runny noses. In some circumstances, the patient is unable to tolerate side effects, causing him to stop using the CPAP machine.

Side effects are common during the first few days of treatment, but they are usually mild and resolve soon after treatment begins. The sleep specialist should be notified when sleep apnea does not improve. In severe cases, surgery can be performed to improve symptoms, however, is not always effective.

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