Sleep Apnea: The Solution Starts with an Accurate Definition and Enlisting the Help of a new Frontline Responder, Your Dentist

Newport Beach wellness dentist, Dr. Dana Rockey says that labeling Sleep Apnea as a “sleep disorder” and using the semantics that typically surround this serious issue can leave patients misguided, leading them down a path that can be detrimental to their health.

Defining Sleep Apnea
“Sleep Apnea is not a sleeping disorder, it’s a breathing disorder that disrupts sleep” Rockey says. Sleep is interrupted due to lack of breathing which is a result of the body’s inability to get oxygen, he says.

Why Sleep Apnea is a Breathing Disorder
When someone who suffers from sleep apnea is sleeping, the soft tissue airway obstruction adversely affects the oxygen level in the blood. Dr. Rockey says that ideally the body should maintain a 99% oxygen saturation level but he has seen levels much lower, which is concerning. He has seen extreme oxygen saturation levels in the 80s and critical levels in the high 70s. When the brain detects low oxygen levels in the blood during sleep, the brain triggers the body to start breathing again, often times violently. The person will snort and gasp as the body works overtime to get the oxygen it desperately needs. The cycle of drifting off to sleep and the startling survival response repeats itself throughout the night which leaves a person feeling exhausted and often times with a headache when they awaken in the morning.

Over time, sleep apnea can cause serious damage the body’s organs by starving them of oxygen and subjects our brain, heart and other organs to significant strain and stress. The body of a person with sleep apnea can experience the intense physiological state of being in survival-mode as it might undergo when a person is suffocating. Many people who have sleep apnea go years being unaware that they suffer from a breathing disorder, or they are unaware of the seriousness of their condition because they are sleeping during their “events” – the period of time in which a person with sleep apnea stops breathing.   

Although there are varying degrees of this disorder ranging from mild to severe, treating sleep apnea as early as possible is crucial because the consequences can become irreversible causing permanent damage and premature death.

Impact of Breathing Disorders
The quality of our sleep directly impacts our health. Going without deep, uninterrupted sleep over extended periods contributes to major health problems such as strokes, diabetes, high blood pressure and chronic acid reflux. Sleep deprivation can also lead to driving accidents and job-related injuries. Research studies have also linked sleep apnea to diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

Many of the 25 million Americans who have Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) don’t realize how serious this disorder can be, or that their dentist can help. Sleep apnea causes those who have it to stop breathing for periods (“events”) that can range from a few seconds to more than a minute.

Dentists as Frontline Responders
When it comes to breathing disorders, dentists have a unique vantage point because they are working inside a person’s mouth which impacts the health of every part of the body. Dentists are fast-becoming frontline responders to the health crisis that breathing disorders present. Because patients are likely to visit their dentist more times per year on average than they do a general physician, dentists are well poised to make a significant impact on this health issue by increasing awareness of breathing disorders among their patients.

Dr. Rockey says that the mouth is the gateway to health, or disease, and directly impacts the health quality of the brain, heart and the body’s organs that are interdependent. The quality of our sleep directly impacts our body’s ability to operate at a level that fights disease, keeps us strong, and allows us to perform at our peak-level.

Road to Diagnosis, Sleep Apnea
Someone who believes that they are experiencing symptoms of a breathing disorder including sleep apnea should simply start a conversation with a trained professional. Dr. Rockey and his staff have knowledge of the field and understand how the problem impacts the body’s systems and organs.

Screening: The first step in the process is screening a patient to investigate whether there are conditions that would lead Dr. Rockey to believe that they should be tested. The screening step involves discovery that incorporates a comprehensive lifestyle questionnaire that is conducted by Dr. Rockey and/or his staff.

Testing: Depending on the results of the screening, Dr. Rockey could refer the patient to a sleep testing company who will deliver the test equipment to the patient’s home for a two-night, in-home study. This option is preferable to patients who prefer to conduct the test in the comfort of their own home. The sleep testing company will work closely with licensed sleep physicians to review and analyze the data.

Establishing a Diagnosis: Once the data from the sleep test has been reviewed, the sleep testing company and medical physician will determine the condition and degree of severity of the breathing disorder, then formulate a diagnosis.

Once the diagnosis has been established, an appropriate treatment/care plan will be determined that includes options that are reviewed with the patient. For conditions that range from light to moderate, Dr. Rockey is able to create a mouth appliance that repositions the jaw to open up the airway.

Sleep Dentistry, part of the Integrative Healthcare
At Dr. Rockey’s Newport Beach dental office Sleep Dentistry is a cornerstone offering for the practice in which Rockey and his staff combine an oral-systemic approach and discipline with wellness-based healthcare. Sleep dentistry deals directly with sleep apnea and breathing disorders, and is one of the pillars of the Oral-Systemic practice that focuses on Periodontal Disease, Sleep Apnea, and Lifestyle & Nutrition.

Rockey notes that his goal is to help people to live the best quality lives as possible. “We can help patients discover if they have a problem and improve their health in a way that is easy, doesn’t require any discomfort, and helps improve their quality of life – for themselves and their significant others” Rockey said.  

In addition to working closely with sleep physicians, Dr. Rockey also works with oncologists, endocrinologists (diabetes), obstetrician-gynecologists and pediatricians to accurately diagnose conditions that range from simple to complex.  

Championing a Shift from Procedure-based to Integrative-based Healthcare
For Dr. Rockey his aim is to teach patients, colleagues and the next generation of healthcare practitioners about the importance of integrative healthcare and the oral-systemic connection. He champions his vision of integrative healthcare that has healthcare professionals working collaboratively across disciplines to accurately diagnose health issues and develop solutions based on a careful examination of a big-picture view of the body’s interdependent systems.

For Rockey’s vision to be possible, it requires that healthcare providers look at the patient as a whole. “If doctors are simply focused on doing procedures, then they’ll miss it. If they’re integrative-based, they will look at the patient as a whole”, Rockey says.

Given what we now know dentists should view chronic inflammation, red/receding and bleeding gums, deep gum (periodontal) pocket measurements, and breathing disorders in a different light. They should recognize these as symptoms of root causes and not simply procedures to be treated locally in the mouth. No longer is ‘drilling and filling’ an acceptable healthcare standard. The work we do as dentists is more in line with a first responder who have the ability to save lives.


About Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Common signs of sleep apnea include snoring, gasping for air, choking, waking up with a sore throat, night sweats and never feeling rested, even after a full night of sleep. Obstructive Sleep Apnea is a disorder that stems from an oxygen deficiency which is usually caused by the soft tissue in the throat blocking the airway and keeping oxygen from getting to the lungs.

Obstructive sleep apnea must be diagnosed by a medical professional. Once diagnosed, treatment may include using custom-fitted oral appliances, a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine, or surgery.

Treating OSA is with oral appliances can be effective for many patients. The oral appliances are custom made to exactly fit each patient’s mouth. They are designed to shift the lower jaw forward during sleep. When the jaw is shifted forward, the jaw in-turn moves the tongue and soft tissue forward and away from the back of the throat. The goal of treatment is to maintain an open airway during sleep.

Continuous Positive Airway Pressure machines are used while sleeping, using a customized oral equipment which is worn during sleep. For this CPAP treatment to be effective, the mask must create a seal around the mouth. The CPAP method of positive pressure ventilation is done to keep the airway open to maintain good airflow to the lungs and therefore increasing oxygenation and reducing the labored effort of breathing.

Symptoms of a Breathing Disorder like Sleep Apnea
Symptoms depend on the type of breathing disorder one may have, but you might:

  • Daytime drowsiness
  • Have trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Snoring
  • Stop breathing briefly and often while asleep
  • Frequent night time urination
  • Morning headaches
  • Weight Gain
  • Have uncomfortable feelings in your legs and the urge to move them (restless legs syndrome)

Poor Sleep Hygiene
In many cases, insomnia is related to bad habits before bed including drinking coffee in the afternoon or evening, caffeine ingestion, smoking or eating heavy foods at night, going to bed at a different time each night, or falling asleep with the television on or using electronic devices right before bedtime.

The Next Step in Seeking Help
If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms of sleep apnea that are listed above, ask your dentist or your physician about screening for sleep apnea.