What Is Oral Appliance Therapy & How Does It Help with Sleep Apnea?

different colored oral appliances displayed on a table

What Is Oral Appliance Therapy & How Does It Help with Sleep Apnea?

Have you noticed your sleep suffering due to classic sleep apnea symptoms? It might be time to seek treatment. Allowing your sleep apnea to go undiagnosed and untreated poses multiple health risks to you, and can keep you and your partner up at night.

Oral appliance therapy is an effective alternative that helps many patients correct their sleep apnea at the source, allowing them to sleep throughout the night. Learn more about sleep-related oral appliance therapy and how it can help with sleep apnea.

Oral Appliance Therapy (OAT)

In oral appliance therapy (OAT), you wear a custom-fitted device that helps open your airway by changing the position of the mandible. Often, our dental sleep medicine patients often notice that their OAT is similar to how orthodontic patients wear retainers to bed at night. However, we do not prescribe them for keeping teeth straight. We specialize in oral appliance therapies that prevent obstructive sleep apnea.  

How OAT Devices Help Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) 

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a condition where, when lying down, a person’s airway (the windpipe in the throat) is covered or constricted, causing considerable pauses in respiration and snoring. Oral appliance therapy can treat cases of sleep apnea when the windpipe is obstructed by a repositioning of the lower mandible (jaw) and tongue positioning when lying down.


CPAPs broadly receive recognition as the most effective treatment for sleep apnea overall, as clinical trials and individual patient cases have proven that CPAPs can improve even the most severe sleep apnea. However, oral appliance therapy serves as a better alternative to the many sleep apnea patients who are clinically CPAP intolerant or as the first type of treatment that many patients with mild to moderate sleep apnea try. Here’s why:

  • OAT devices come as small tooth retainers and fit in your mouth, unlike CPAPs, which are a three to four piece contraption with hoses.
  • OAT devices are small and nonrestrictive of your mid-sleep movements or body positioning. CPAP systems involve strapping a mask over your mouth and nose, attached to a machine via tube throughout the night.
  • OAT devices don’t make noise at all! CPAPs are often noisy. 
  • OAT doesn’t constantly blow dry air down the wearer’s throat; CPAPs do, which can dry out the throat, mouth, and lips.
  • OAT devices are easily cleaned by soaking the device in simple solutions; CPAPs require extensive cleaning of their parts and hoses.

Potential Side Effects

The side effects of OAT can include dry mouth, drooling or overactive salivation, and temporary tooth or jaw pain. Some patients can experience these same side effects when wearing a CPAP, besides jaw pain.

Jaw pain and tooth tenderness can be side effects that can occur when using OAT. However, you are likely to eliminate this problem by maintaining regular appointments with your board certified dental sleep medicine specialist. You should immediately consult with your board certified dental sleep medicine specialist if you notice unusual clicking in your jaw, your sleep apnea symptoms worsen, or you find yourself having mouth/jaw pain even when you haven’t worn your OAT device in multiple hours.

Not everyone experiences side effects, and we strive to help our patients avoid experiencing negative side effects. We help evaluate fit, comfort, and quality of sleep as we seek to alleviate a patient’s sleep apnea symptoms. In addition to being board certified in dental sleep medicine, Dr. Hartsfield is also board certified in orofacial pain. If any of these side effects are experienced she can offer a comprehensive solution. 

How to Begin Oral Appliance Therapy

It’s recommended to visit a dental sleep medicine specialist for a consultation to know what kind of treatments you’re eligible for. After you discuss symptoms at your initial consultation, the specialist will evaluate you in a sleep study. 

If you have sleep apnea, your dental sleep medicine specialist will review the results of your sleep study. The specialist will then tell you which treatment will be the best approach for you. If you do not have highly severe sleep apnea and the cause of your apnea is correctable with an oral device, OAT will be available as an option.

When you receive approval for oral appliance therapy, we will take your measurements and custom-fit you with a device. A few weeks after your fitting, you will return for us to double-check the fit of the device, ensuring it properly fits and is comfortable.

Then, we will send you home with the device and instructions for use, cleaning, and care; we’ll also help you practice inserting and removing the device from your mouth. You will return for regular follow up appointments until an ideal setting has been reached.

Mandatory Follow-Up Care 

Your final fitting will not be your last appointment, even if this OAT device corrects your sleep apnea and you do not experience any side effects. Following your final fitting, your dental sleep medicine specialist will recommend a schedule for how often you should return to the clinic to determine how treatment is going and to maintain the fit of your device.

Maintaining your device’s fit ensures proper alignment, as the device can loosen up over time with regular wear. If you have any trouble with gum irritation, your sleep apnea does not improve, or you’re experiencing any side effects, make an appointment with us for adjustment or treatment reevaluation!

Experts in Sleep Apnea Treatment and Dental Sleep Medicine

Whether you’re CPAP intolerant, living with untreated sleep apnea, or suspect you have sleep apnea, you can still get the great sleep you want and need. We want to help you sleep well and make it easy with our hassle-free and practical custom approach to your sleep needs.

At TMJ & Sleep Solutions of Alabama, our mission is to provide personalized care to restore quality of life, one patient at a time. If you are experiencing issues with sleep, don’t hesitate to contact us today and book an appointment!

Learn more about sleep apnea, the restorative power of dental sleep medicine, and oral appliance therapy on our blog.