As I began treating sleep apnea patients, they would tell me that they felt more refreshed in the morning, had less snoring and did not feel as tired during the day as they had before using their sleep retainer. That’s what I would expect to hear because their retainer was keeping their airway open while they slept.
What I didn’t understand were their reports of having “vivid or weird dreams.” I didn’t have much experience with sleep retainers, so I didn’t understand if this was a good thing or a bad thing that I needed to fix.
All dentists are trained to fix stuff happening in a patient’s mouth, especially to their teeth. A dentist learns what to do in dental school, and then refines their education and clinical skills by gaining experience in the real world. But, even today, there is no training in dental schools for treating obstructive sleep apnea. It all has to be learned on the job.
So, when I was confronted with causing sleep apnea patients to have “vivid or weird” dreams, at first I thought it was something I needed to fix. It took me several years before I fully understood that this is a positive sign that the sleep retainer is doing what it supposed to do.
And that was to…
Open the airway and prevent it from closing while asleep. And when a sleep retainer is really doing its job, a patient reaches the REM stage of sleep cycle. REM is short for Rapid Eye Movement. During this sleep stage, the only muscles moving are the diaphragms to maintain breathing and the muscles of the eyeballs, hence the name given to this stage of sleep.
It’s during REM sleep that you dream. If you do not have sleep apnea, you may have 4-5 REM stages every night. Vivid or weird dreams are most likely to occur during the last REM cycle, which is the longest and the one you have before waking up.
If you have untreated sleep apnea, you might not enter a REM sleep cycle. And if you do, you would not remain in the sleep stage long enough for you to dream.