Sleep apnea is a medical condition that is characterized by repeated interruptions to the normal breathing patterns while the patient sleeps. The number of interruptions can vary from as few as one or two to as many as a hundred in one, eight-hour period of sleep.
While there are two varieties of sleep apnea, obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA as it is referred to, is by far the most common. Estimates suggest that as many as 4% of the U.S. population have been diagnosed with the condition, while in reality the number of sufferers could be much higher – they have simply not sought professional help.
What causes sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea occurs when a physical blockage prevents normal airflow from the mouth and nose to the lungs. The soft tissues at the back of the throat usually relax when we sleep. However, some patients have excess tissue in this area, or tissue that relaxes too much – both situations that can cause a blockage. When the patient’s brain recognizes that the airflow has been stopped, it sends a message to the body to take a deeper breath than normal which enables the air to have enough force to push past it. This often manifests as a loud snort.
Although it is sometimes unclear why a patient suffers from sleep apnea, there are some factors that are known to increase the likelihood of developing the condition. These include:
- Being overweight/obese. This is because excess weight causes excess fatty tissue in the throat and neck. It also means there is greater pressure on the airway when the muscles relax.
- Smoking. Nicotine can cause inflammation and irritation of the airway, causing it to narrow.
- Drinking alcohol before bed. Alcohol is a natural relaxant and can cause the soft tissues of the throat to relax more than normal.
- Age. The natural decrease in collagen production we experience as we get older means that we are more likely to experience sagging, loose skin and soft tissue that could block our airway.
- Enlarged tonsils/adenoids. Some people have naturally large tonsils or adenoids. These are located next to the airway and could potentially block it.
Symptoms of sleep apnea
There are various symptoms that might indicate that a person is suffering from sleep apnea. These include:
- Loud/frequent snoring
- Choking or gasping sounds
- Morning headaches
- Feeling tired during the day
- Waking feeling unrefreshed
If you or your partner notice these symptoms, then you should seek the advice of your dentist.
Types of sleep apnea treatment
Fortunately, there are a range of different treatments for sleep apnea that can reduce or entirely eliminate the symptoms that you are experiencing and enable you to get a refreshing night of sleep again.
Initially, your dentist may recommend that you make various lifestyle changes, including losing weight, giving up smoking or reducing your alcohol intake. In many cases, these alone can significantly reduce the number of sleep apnea episodes that you experience. However, many patients also require further therapies and your dentist will work with you to find the one that best helps ease your sleep apnea.
The two main types of sleep apnea treatment available include:
Oral appliance therapy. This involves wearing a device in your mouth that will help keep your airway open. It does this either by changing the position of your tongue, or the position of your jaw.
Positive airway pressure (PAP) machines. Used in more severe apnea cases, these machines deliver positive pressure through a mask fitted over your nose and mouth while you sleep. This pressure is enough to push past the blockage and enable you to sleep normally.
Benefits of sleep apnea treatment
Treating your sleep apnea is not only important for getting a decent night of sleep, but it also has benefits that can improve your personal life and ensure that you remain as healthy as possible.
Some of the most commonly-cited benefits of sleep apnea treatment include:
Less snoring! It can be incredibly frustrating and exhausting sleeping next to someone who snores heavily. In treating your sleep apnea, you can reduce your snoring and the impact it has on those around you, meaning that your partner will get a better night of sleep too! This also means that there will be less tiredness and irritability in your relationship, enabling you to get along better.
Health benefits. Studies into the health benefits of treating sleep apnea continue to show startling improvements across various aspects of patient’s wellbeing including reduced blood pressure and insulin resistance, lower levels of inflammation and less lethargy. People with untreated sleep apnea have a higher rate of death from heart disease than those who undergo treatment, and research shows that in opting for therapies to improve the condition, patients can also benefit from a lower risk of developing the following”
- congestive heart failure
- coronary artery disease
- heart arrhythmia
Personal benefits. Sleepiness and daytime fatigue can make it difficult to carry out your usual day to day activities, and these are two symptoms commonly experienced by sufferers of sleep apnea. Treatment means that you can be more awake and alert during the day, leading to greater productivity and this could boost your career or home life. Your ability to concentrate also improves, something which is equally as important for your own safety and those around you. You should also be less likely to suffer from emotional issues such as anxiety and depression which are normal side effects of the crippling tiredness seen in patients with obstructive sleep apnea.
If you would like to find out more about sleep apnea and the treatments that are available, we would be happy to help. Please contact our offices to schedule an appointment.