Dr. Bill Harrell

Local orthodontist Dr. Bill Harrell will participate in a research study on Indian children with sleep apnea and other airway problems next year.

An Alexander City resident could make an impact for Indian children next year. Although nothing has been finalized yet, local orthodontist Dr. Bill Harrell plans to partner with Dr. Priyanaka Kapoor of New Dehli, India to study and treat Indian children with sleep apnea and other airway problems.

Harrell’s work involves improving the jawbone to open up patient airways and fix nasal cavities. A teacher at UAB, Harrell works on adult sleep apnea patients in Auburn. 

Harrell also treats children with breathing sleeping issues and believes sleep apnea begins as a child.

“This idea about the airway became apparent back in the (1980s),” Harrell said. “Some of the orthodontic problems we have today are from not breathing properly. Probably in the late-’90s it became apparent that some of these children are some of these adults who develop sleep apnea later on in life. The genesis of it starts in children.”

Kapoor recently contacted Harrell through LinkedIn and asked him to help with the study. He already wanted to research improving children’s airways when Kapoor contacted him.

“When she got a hold of me I just went, ‘Whoa, this is perfect timing,’” Harrell said.

Kapoor has applied for a grant and will visit Alexander City and UAB next year. 

Kapoor found Harrell through his articles and books he posted online and liked his research and the advancements he’s made. Harrell’s office is one of the first practices in the state to use 3D imaging and combine it with 3D facial imaging, which helps with studying breathing and airways. 

“With this 3D facial camera that we have (at Harrell Orthodontic Specialist), I’m looking at these ‘biomarkers’ on the face like the allergic shiners, the dark circles under the eyes, the little groves under the eyes,” Harrell said.

Harrell does traditional orthodontics but emphasizes early treatment with airways because it’s “rampant.”

“It’s almost like some of them are breathing through a soda straw,” Harrell said. “You would be amazed at how small these airways are. I think we’re doing a good service beyond making teeth look pretty.”

Harrell and Kapoor plan to study a group of 200 to 400 Indian children ages 6 to 8 years old. The children will undergo a sleep study so the doctors can figure out who has a sleeping problem so they can be treated.

“What we’ll do after six months or a year is reevaluate those children, run through the polysomnography again and see how they develop,” Harrell said.

The doctors will look at if the children’s breathing has improved and what changed.

Harrell said some child sleep disorders relate to symptoms of attention deficit hyperactive disorder. 

“Because a lot of times they don’t breathe well enough at night they don’t oxygenate themselves; they don’t sleep well,” Harrell said. “So what happens is they don’t perform well in school because they’re not getting enough oxygen in their brain.”

Harrell is on an American Dental Association’s task force that promoted screening children with sleeping disordered breathing. The screening asks if a child snores while sleeping, breathes through only his or her mouth or ever stops breathing or gasps for breath while sleeping.

“It’s not normal for a child to snore at night,” Harrell said. “It doesn’t mean they have sleep apnea or anything but it might mean they’re not oxygenating themselves well enough especially if they get tired and things like that.”

Child sleeping issues need to be addressed by a physician, according to Harrell.

Most studies on sleep apnea and the airway are done on adults. Because those issues can start in childhood, this study will help with early intervention and possibly prevent significant problems, Harrell said.

Harrell hopes to prove sleep apnea starts early in life and looks forward to helping children with early treatment.