Medicine has long recognized the connection between a patient’s oral health and general health. While research on the precise mechanisms of this oral-system link is ongoing, we know that inflammation by oral bacterial contributes to inflammation in other parts of the body. In a recent piece for Hygienetown, RDH Shirley Gutkowski discusses an aspect of the oral-systemic link that is proving to be more significant than previously thought: airway disorders.
Complications of the airway, particularly mouth breathing and sleep apnea, are growing concerns among dental professionals. Below, we’ll examine how dentists and dental hygienists can use airway support in dentistry to help patients improve their oral and overall health.
How Airway Disorders Affect the Oral-Systemic Link
In her article, Gutkowski contextualizes the issues through the work of pediatric dentist Dr. Kevin Boyd. Dr. Boyd is a leading scholar in Darwinian Dentistry, a medical theory exploring the link between modern systemic diseases and human evolutionary changes.
Darwinian Dentistry hypothesizes that the rapid industrialization of food has spurred evolutionary changes that leave us susceptible to airway disorders. Specifically, humans have smaller midfaces and smaller sinus cavities than our ancestors, contributing to mouth breathing while awake and apnea during sleep.
Mouth breathing causes numerous oral health issues: lower oral pH, dry gum tissue, malocclusion. But it has also been linked to systemic issues far beyond the oral cavity, including higher incidences of ADHD and learning disabilities in children.
The same is true about sleep apnea. Gutkowski points out the conditions associated with inflammation are nearly identical to those linked with sleep apnea, and many studies show an increase in inflammation in people who snore. In one study, seniors with abnormal pulmonary function had significantly higher incidences of gingivitis.
Airway Support in Dentistry
An increasing number of dental professionals are focusing on the airway, some even opening “sleep practices” that specialize in these disorders. Many of these dentists can provide patients with dental appliances designed to support the jaw during sleep, providing airway support to alleviate apnea symptoms.
The practice of Orofacial myofunctional therapy (OMT) is also gaining acceptance as an alternative method of treating airway disorders. OMT involves movements that strengthen the muscles involved in the airway complex. The results are impressive: OMT has been demonstrated to reduce apnea by 62% in children and 50% in adults.
There are several ways dental hygienists can play a role in airway support. It is likely that demand for these skills will increase as recognition of airway disorders in the oral-systemic link continues to grow among dental professionals.
- Become an expert. Registered dental hygienists can apply for certification as an Orofacial Myologist following completion of an IAOM-approved 28-hour course.
- Be breath-aware. Along with looking for signs of periodontal inflammation, hygienists can observe a patient’s breathing for potential issues. A patient who cannot breathe through the nose for 20 or more respiration cycles should receive a referral to an orofacial myology specialist.
- Practice preventative treatments. Since OMT takes time, hygienists can provide patients with fluoride varnishes in the meantime, which can help to prevent oral health issues associated with apnea and mouth breathing issues.