School of Dental Medicine Plans to offer Panacea for Sleep Disorders

The reported 27 percent of college students plagued by sleep disorders may have found unlikely saviors: their dentists. More and more students have been suffering from sleep problems, and dentists at Tufts are learning the solution to some of these disorders.

The Dental Sleep Medicine Program at the School of Dental Medicine, first offered as a course in the Fall 2009 semester, is training dental students to identify and treat sleeping disorders through the use of corrective mouth equipment.

Although the course is currently an elective, Noshir Mehta, a professor and chair of general dentistry and director of Tufts’ Craniofacial Pain, Headache and Sleep Center, hopes that it will some day be a required course for all aspiring dentists across the nation.

“Dentists should be able to spot these symptoms right away; not getting enough sleep affects the brain function,” Mehta said.

Dentists, unexpectedly, make the perfect candidates to treat some sleep disorders because of their expert knowledge of oral anatomy and corrective mouth equipment.

Among the sleep disorders studied in the course, a particularly troublesome condition is also one of the most common and most difficult to diagnose: obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).

“The new Tufts program was born based on the need for new dentists to be aware of the high number of patients who suffer from sleep apnea,” Leopoldo P. Correa, the course director and head of the school’s Dental Sleep Medicine section, said.

According to the American Sleep Apnea Association website, people with sleep apnea may stop breathing hundreds of times for up to a minute or longer during their sleeping hours.

Since sleep apnea occurs when those who suffer from it are asleep, the condition often goes undiagnosed. With adequate training, dentists will be able to recognize, diagnose and treat more cases of sleep apnea, according to Correa.

People with sleep apnea, which is caused by a physical blockage in the airway by soft throat tissue, tend to be tired and moody during the day, even if they have slept an adequate amount.

The popular treatment for OSA involves a large sleeping mask called a continuous positive airway pressure device (CPAP). CPAP is widely used and largely effective, although the mask can be awkward and uncomfortable. Through the Dental Sleep Medicine Program, dental students are learning to treat OSA using alternative corrective appliances in place of CPAP.

One of the dangers of sleep disorders and sleeping deficiencies is that they often cause additional health problems, according to Mehta.

“Not getting enough sleep affects the brain function,” Mehta said. “It is not only the amount of sleep but the architecture of sleep. If you sleep three hours one day, five hours the next day and two hours the day after that, this is disrupting the architecture of sleep.”

Mehta said that getting enough hours of sleep is as important as getting consistent amounts of sleep.

“Students don’t see the effects of their sleeping habits right now, but they may see them later,” he said.

Both consistency and amount of sleep are significant problems among college students, according to Mehta, who added that habitual use of popular substances like caffeine also contributes to sleep disorders.

“Caffeine is a drug,” Mehta said. “People don’t think of it as a drug, but it is a drug. Ultimately, if you keep doing it, there will be an inevitable crash. It could happen before an exam. Severe sleep depravation can make you forget everything you learned.”

Obesity is another common factor contributing to sleep disorders like OSA, Corea said.

“Obesity is one of the biggest problems we have,” Corea said. “Obese people tend to have a larger neck size, so the added pressure against the upper airway increases the chance of OSA.”

Source: Tufts Daily

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