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January 10, 2014 • 03:51:10 p.m.

Truck driver falling asleep during daily routines gets wake-up call at the dentist

By JAMI KUNZER - jkunzer@shawmedia.com

Joe Hathcoat, a truck driver suffering from severe sleep apnea gets fitted with an oral mouthpiece that will hold his jaw forward allowing him to have a larger airway. The mouthpieces are used for those with sleep apnea who can't tolerate the large breathing masks that must be worn at night. (Sarah Nader- snader@shawmedia.com)

Joe Hathcoat went in for a toothache and ended up with treatment for sleep apnea.

The dentist likely isn't the first person thought of it when it comes to sleep and snoring problems, but more dental patients are getting help through a relatively new treatment.

As part of the paperwork at All Smiles Dental in Algonquin, Hathcoat identified some possible trouble with his sleep habits, so his dentist, Dr. Timonth Stirneman suggested he bring home a test for sleep apnea.

Those with the chronic sleep disorder suffer from pauses or shallow breathing during sleep. It can lead to daytime fatigue, as well as major health issues.

"Something was wrong," said Joe's wife, Threse, who videotaped her husband sleeping and showed the dentist. "He snores badly, and he was gasping for air and it freaked me out."

A truck driver who drives up to 300 miles a day for more than 12 hours at times, Hathcoat also was feeling fatigued during the day. He actually fell asleep in the dentist's chair during his first visit.

Along with the health issues, such as high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke and even death that sleep apnea can lead to, the disorder can affect driving. Some statistics show the risk of traffic accidents doubles for sleep apnea sufferers.

"It's getting more and more press that being drowsy while you drive is just like being drunk," Stirneman said.

The sleep study Hathcoat took home with him reveled he stopped breathing or partially stopped breathing an average of 42 times an hour. More than 30 times an hour is considered severe, Stirneman said.

The test showed Hathcoat could benefit from an oral mouthpiece used to help prevent sleep apnea, he said.

The mouthpieces especially help those who can't tolerate the masks, or CPAP (Constant Positive Airway Pressure) Machines, typically used to treat the disorder.

"A lot of people either feel claustrophobic or they're just not comfortable," said Stirneman, a sleep apnea sufferer himself. "Personally, I was one of those. I tried every mask under the sun and couldn't wear it. I went a few years without doing anything."

He'd keep himself awake by remaining busy, like many do, he said. Others revert to snacking frequently, he said, and being overweight, along with other triggers, in some cases can lead to the disorder.

Stirneman eventually took a course on ways dentists can help treat sleep apnea, helped himself, and is now helping his patients.

The oral mouthpieces basically help air move through the airway by holding the jaw forward so it can't drop back.

"What happens is that your jaw drops back, and if you can imagine a garden hose, it kind of kinks," Stirneman said. "A CPAP actually is like blowing air into the hose and blowing out the kink from one side. ... What the oral appliance does, it's like pulling from a garden hose the other way. What it does is instead of blowing air in it pulls it tight so air can possibly go through there."

Stirneman said he was one of few dentists using the treatment because of the extensive training it requires.

Once a mouthpiece is fitted in a patient, like it was in Hathcoat, it must be checked often during follow-up appointments.

"Any dentist can treat it, but if you don't do the followup correctly, people can start feeling better, but they're not all the way treated," Stirneman said.

Joe Hathcoat's physician had referred him to a clinic for an overnight sleep study years ago, but Hathcoat didn't like the use of all the wires and monitoring devices the test would have required. So he walked out.

He'd remained untreated since then.

"I didn't know it was that bad," the 42-year-old Algonquin man said. "They said I could die from this. I had no clue."

That's the case with many with the disorder, experts say. They either remain untested and untreated or unwilling to use a CPAP Machine. Of those identified, an estimated 5 to 10 percent of Americans are affected by sleep apnea.

"It's a really dangerous thing that I think a lot of people just pass off as snoring," Stirneman said. "If anybody's got any snoring that causes them to have to go to bed in a different room than their spouse, there's a problem, something that ought to get checked out."


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