NORTH MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WM BF) - A North Myrtle Beach dentist says when he found out obstructive sleep apnea can take 10 to 15 years off a person's life expectancy, he started researching how to help patients dealing with the condition.
"The majority of patients have problems sleeping at night. So it's something that we as a practice got involved with to see what options we have to help the patient," said Dr. Ronnie Barth, a dentist with Gentle Dental Care.
Barth said it is the one condition that he feels brings medical doctors and dentists together to find a cure.
"Dentists can't diagnose patients with sleep apnea and doctors can't make devices to treat sleep apnea," Barth said. "So, we are working together to help patients. There's 22 million people in America that have issues with sleep-related breathing disorders. Of those 22 million, 80 percent of these are moderate to severe sleep apnea patients who are left undiagnosed. They have no idea."
Often times patents don't like to talk about snoring, since it's seen as an embarrassing subject. According to Barth, that means sleep apnea goes undiagnosed.
However, Barth said snoring can let a person know there is a serious or possibly deadly health problem going on.
"A lot of people will tell you they don't snore. Snoring is nothing more than a fire alarm, so if you silence the snoring with a lot of these appliances you can get from the drug store, you're not putting out the fire," he said. "You just silenced the problem, no, now you just die silently."
Sherry Cook, an elementary school teacher in Virginia and one of Barth's patients, said her doctor diagnosed her with sleep apnea a few years ago.
"I was not sleeping, I was gaining weight, I was having lots of pain and I knew I started snoring a lot," Cook said. "I could be sitting on the floor and reading to the children and I have dozed off, and I don't think they've notice it, but I could remember not reading a couple of pages. I do have a lunch break and about three to four times a week, I take a little nap."
Cook said her health also declined. She was diagnosed as pre-diabetic and she couldn't focus mentally.
"I can't concentrate. I even had to go to a psychiatrist because my brain couldn't focus. I have two masters and I started thinking, 'Do I have early dementia?'"
Cook is getting an evaluation to see if she can possibly benefit from the dental appliances used to treat sleep apnea.
"We always take medicines to go to bed, and we drink stuff to wake up in the morning, but a good solid night's sleep can take away a lot of that," Barth said.
He added a CPAP machine is a common device to treat sleep apnea patients, and he says while it is standard care, it is not always effective.
Barth is fitting Cook and patients like her who are diagnosed with sleep apnea with custom-made mouth guards. The wings on the devices help keep the patient's airway open during a night's sleep.
In addition to fitting patients for mouth guards, Barth utilizes a sleep monitor, which is attached to the patient's head and allows medical professionals to study how the person sleeps.
Barth said more insurance companies are allowing for the devices to be used because they give a better analysis of a how a person sleeps in a non-foreign environment rather than in a foreign sleep lab.
In Cook's case, she is glad she spoke with her doctor about her symptoms.
"I'm relieved that there was an answer," she said. "I really thought something more serious was going on, which I know this is serious, but I know what's going on."