Can a General Dentist Diagnose Sleep Apnea?

Posted on: June 16, 2019

A general dentist is one of the medical professionals who is seen the most often in the United States. During a checkup, or when addressing dental issues, a dentist may ask a patient about their sleep patterns. Why is this? Simply put, sleep apnea may be the underlying cause of at least some of the problems.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder that affects thousands of people. A simple definition is the repeated starting and stopping of breathing patterns while sleeping.

Due to how often they may see an individual during the year, dentists are in a unique position to gather information which may help in the diagnosis of sleep apnea. It should be noted that although they can make their patients aware of the problem and render assistance, general dentists cannot fully or medically diagnose sleep apnea. Once a dentist has enough evidence to suggest sleep apnea, they will recommend that patients make an appointment with a medical doctor, who will probably recommend a sleep study.

What are indicators of sleep apnea?

Certain conditions may lead a general dentist to suspect sleep apnea. One tell-tale sign is if a patient complains about fatigue or pain in the jaw. If a general dentist suspects sleep apnea, he or she will likely ask about particular issues.

Teeth grinding

The dentist will check for worn tooth surfaces, as patients suffering from sleep apnea often grind their teeth in distress when they cannot breathe enough. Grinding can cause damage to teeth as well as to the muscles of the jaw.

Sore throat

A dentist might notice a red or raw throat, which can be another sign of sleep apnea. Snoring is a common side-effect of sleep apnea; chronic snoring can irritate the throat.

Excessive fatigue

If a patient indicates that they are tired all the time, they may be losing sleep due to the constant gasping for breath that is an indicator of sleep apnea. Not getting enough rest can also be detrimental to the overall health of a patient.

Methods of assistance

If the answers to these questions indicate sleep apnea, a general dentist can make some recommendations to ease a patient’s discomfort until the patient can make an appointment with a medical doctor.

Changes in habit

Certain habits may be addressed to alleviate symptoms. A simple altering of sleeping positions could alter the breathing patterns. A dentist may recommend a different type of pillow for enhanced head and neck support. Ceasing the use of tobacco or alcohol may also be effective in easing discomfort while sleeping.

Mouth guards

A mouth guard is a common prevention method. This custom device is molded to the contours of one’s mouth and will help the airways stay open throughout the night. If there are indicators learned from the above questions, this may be an option even before actual diagnosis. However, once an actual diagnosis of sleep apnea has occurred, dentists can move on to more intense and focused types of assistance.

Moving on to Medical Doctors

Remember, general dentists cannot medically diagnose sleep apnea. However, once they are reasonably sure that the symptoms of such a condition exist, they will refer a patient to a specialist who can make a full diagnosis. Steps to diagnosis might include a take-home sleep study, which will record the results of many nights' rest and provide valuable information that can lead to an accurate diagnosis.


Even though general dentists cannot diagnose sleep apnea, they are often the first people to recognize its presence and might be the first people to help. They will also usually take a front-seat role in treating sleep apnea, should it be diagnosed in a patient.

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