Can a Mouth Guard Work Better Than CPAP for Sleep Apnea?

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on September 09, 2021
3 min read

Sleep apnea is a condition that causes you to stop breathing for short intervals while you sleep. Sleep apnea can cause snoring, restless sleep, and repeated wakeups in the night. People who have sleep apnea may be chronically tired because they never get good rest.

The most common cause of sleep apnea is a blockage of your upper airway that prevents you from taking a breath for 10 seconds or longer. There are various reasons for the blockage, including:‌

  • Blockage of the nasal passages
  • Excess tissue in the upper airway
  • Large tongue
  • Large tonsils
  • The shape of your jaw and airway

Sleep apnea is very common. Men are more likely to have it than women. Being overweight or obese increases your risk of developing sleep apnea. In addition to causing chronic tiredness, it can make conditions like diabetes, heart disease, or high blood pressure worse.

Sleep apnea is treatable. Your doctor may prescribe a CPAP machine to deliver extra oxygen while you sleep. Some people benefit from a special mouth guard that can reduce the effects of sleep apnea.

If you have mild or moderate sleep apnea, you may be a candidate for a dental appliance to treat it.

Because sleep apnea is caused by the position of your throat, changing the way you hold your mouth and jaw can sometimes help. Some sleep apnea mouth guards position your lower jaw forward slightly while you sleep. That makes it harder for the skin at the back of your throat to collapse over your airway. Other appliances hold your tongue in one place so it can't fall back over your airway.

If you need a mouth guard for sleep apnea, you can get one from a dentist. They can take a mold of your teeth to make a custom appliance you can wear. Your dentist adjusts the positioning of the appliance, so it changes your jaw or tongue position while still being comfortable. You may need one or more follow-up appointments to get the alignment of the tray right. Your doctor may do a follow-up sleep study to make sure the tray is helping you get better rest.

You can also find over-the-counter versions of apnea mouth guards. These are less customizable, so they don't have the same results as the type made by a dentist. They are much less expensive. Your health or dental insurance may cover a custom mouthguard, so check with them if cost is a concern.

If you have severe sleep apnea, your doctor may prescribe a CPAP device. CPAP stands for "continuous positive airway pressure." CPAP machines deliver a flow of oxygen to the back of your throat, which prevents collapse and ensures good breathing. It has a mask that you wear over your face when you sleep. A tube connects the mask to a motorized oxygen dispenser. The device pumps oxygen into your mouth and nose continuously while you sleep.

CPAPs are very effective at reducing wakeups from apnea. But they are bulky, and not everyone finds them comfortable to wear. The motor makes noise, which may disturb you or your bed partner. They are also inconvenient for travel.

Most insurance covers CPAP devices and parts, but there may be annual limits on how many masks or tubes you can get. Any changes to a CPAP require a call to your doctor.

Some people with mild to moderate sleep apnea get relief from mouth guards. They may never have to try a CPAP. The repositioning clears their airways sufficiently to minimize or stop wakeups during the night. When a mouthguard works, usually your doctor will tell you to keep using it indefinitely.

If your apnea is severe, the mouth guard might not be the right solution for you. Your doctor may encourage you to try a CPAP and see if that improves your breathing during the night. If the CPAP can't provide the help you need, you may be a candidate for surgery. Doctors can make small changes to the skin around your throat to prevent the collapsing that affects your breathing.

If you think you have sleep apnea, talk to your doctor. They can help you find the right treatment so you sleep better and improve your overall health.