Sleep apnea is the name given to a very common condition that now affects as many as 5% of the U.S. population at any given time. There are two types of sleep apnea: central and obstructive sleep apnea (often referred to as OSA. Central sleep apnea is caused by a communication problem between your brain and lungs that causes you to temporarily stop breathing whilst you sleep, whilst obstructive sleep apnea is caused by a physical blockage in the airway. OSA is by far the most common of the two conditions and can be treated by a trained and experienced dentist.
What Happens During an Episode of Sleep Apnea?
Patients who have obstructive sleep apnea are often very loud when they sleep. They almost certainly snore and may sound like they are struggling to breathe. Some are very obviously holding their breath while they are asleep. This happens because while they are asleep, the soft tissue in the throat and the tongue relaxes to such a degree that the patient’s airway becomes much narrower than before, making it harder for air to pass through. In some cases, it even closes completely for a few moments. This interrupts the regular, unconscious pattern of breathing that we normally have, and limits the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain. The brain, recognizing that there is a problem, then sends a frantic signal to the body to remind it to breathe. This results in the patient’s body unconsciously taking a much bigger breath than normal to push past the obstruction. This will sound like a sudden snort or gasp of breath. In moderate and severe cases of OSA, a patient could experience dozens of episodes of interrupted breathing during one night of sleep.
Why do Some People Have Sleep Apnea?
Exactly what causes sleep apnea can vary considerably. Some of the most common contributing factors have been identified as:
Obesity. Research has found that people who are overweight or obese are much more likely to develop sleep apnea. This is because they have an excess amount of fat and soft tissue in the face and neck, and when they relax these too soften and block the airway, preventing proper airflow.
Smoking. Nicotine has been shown to cause inflammation and irritation of the airway, as well as causing fluid retention that can interrupt our regular breathing.
Alcohol. Alcohol is another relaxant that can affect the muscles and soft tissue in our throat. This means that people who drink alcohol, particularly before bed are at increased risk of suffering from OSA.
Age. As we get older decreased collagen production means that our skin becomes loose and lax. This means that it is less effective at holding the tissues at the back of the throat and neck in place, enabling it to sag and cause an obstruction in the airway.
Enlarged tonsils or adenoids. Patients who regularly experience bouts of tonsillitis, or who have frequently enlarged tonsils or adenoids, may find that they obstruct their airway and cause them to have episodes of OSA.
Family history. Some studies have shown that if you have a close family member who has sleep apnea, you may be more likely to develop the condition yourself.
Symptoms of Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Snoring is largely considered to be the most obvious symptom of obstructive sleep apnea. However, there are a number of others, which include:
Labored breathing during sleep.
Excessive daytime fatigue.
Depression or mood swings.
Waking from sleep feeling physically exhausted.
Frequently experiencing morning headaches. These are caused by a lack of oxygenated blood to the brain during each episode of OSA.
Treatment for Sleep Apnea
In nearly all cases, one of the first things that we will assess is your lifestyle and if making any changes is likely to reduce the number of episodes of OSA you are experiencing. This could involve recommending a weight loss program, quitting smoking or cutting back on your alcohol consumption. Nevertheless, many patients that successfully improve aspects of their lifestyle still find that they need further support with their sleep apnea. These can include the following:
Oral appliance therapy
Oral appliances are exactly what their name suggests. Appliances that are worn inside the mouth to help stop sleep apnea. You may be recommended to try a tongue retainer or mandibular advancement device (MAD) both of which are designed to improve airflow while you sleep. Tongue retainers work by changing the position of the tongue so that it does not relax and block the airway while you are asleep. Meanwhile, mandibular advancement devices modify the position of your jaw, moving the tongue forward and creating a larger space behind the palate so that a greater volume of air can pass through.
Positive Airway Pressure (PAP)
Positive Airway Pressure is one of the most popular and successful treatments for OSA. It involves wearing a mask over their mouth and nose while you sleep. This mask is attached to a machine that delivers a positive supply of air with a force strong enough to push past the obstruction that would usually occur. There are different varieties of PAP machines, but the most common is the CPAP machine. This provides constant positive air pressure for the entire duration of the time it is being worn.
Obstructive sleep apnea can be frustrating, but there are treatment options that can help. To discover more about OSA, please get in touch with our experienced dentistry team by calling Attuned Dental Care in Milpitas, CA today 408-263-3090.
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