Sleep Apnea: Our Journey to Be Recognized as Physicians of the Oral Region

  • by Larry Stanleigh, BSc, MSc, DDS, FADI, FICD, FACD, FPFA
  • Jun 5, 2017, 09:27 AM
We dentists started as barber surgeons, with teeth as disposable as hair. The oral region was glossed over as unimportant by the medical community for thousands of years. A good friend of mine, a physiatrist (physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist), admitted to me that his education stopped at the temporomandibular (TM) joints and anything beyond that was a total mystery to him. In my orofacial pain and TM joint dysfunction practice, we naturally are working closer together than ever before.

With increasing evidence that diabetes affects the progression of oral infections — particularly, periodontal disease and how periodontal infections can affect the stability of diabetic management; and the growing links between oral infections and premature, low birthweight babies; as well as the links between premature atherosclerosis and periodontal infections and higher levels of c-reactive proteins in the presence of chronic inflammation from infections — the medical community is starting to pay attention to the orofacial region and dentistry as an integral part of the assessment and treatment of the entire human body.

When I was in dental school, many of our courses were identical in the first two years as the medical students’ courses. Basic information about the human body must and should be understood by all members of the health care community. Only in later years do we emphasize the subject areas of our particular field of study.

About 20 years ago, I became aware of the work of James F. Garry, DDS, a pediatric dentist who understood the critical link between breastfeeding and the development of the oral region, including the development of the airway. He was instrumental in the development of the NUK® and Sauger nipple and pacifier, along with Dr. Wilhelm Balters, a leading health expert from Germany.

Now, orofacial development, airway development and airway issues are affecting such a large part of our population that it is a serious general medical issue, and our role as physicians of the oral region continues to grow in importance. Steven Y. Park, MD, an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat specialist) in New York has a great website, blog, podcast, book and more, which are focused on airway and sleep issues, and he regularly interviews dentists, as he has recognized our role in this issue.

It is gratifying to see that our medical colleagues slowly recognize that our role in early childhood development and possible prevention of future airway and sleep apnea issues is critically important to the long-term well-being of the general population. Indeed, obstructive sleep apnea and sleep disorders are part of the Fellowship Exam of the Academy of General Dentistry.

It is time for all of us to study this field more, and to continue to collaborate, positively and collegially, with our medical colleagues, for the betterment of the members of the public whom we humbly serve.
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