You have likely heard of sleep apnea as this disorder is a common problem. Current estimates are that over 25 million Americans experience sleep apnea. However, many people don’t have complete information about sleep apnea and how the disorder is related to the mouth and throat.
Apnea means “without breathing.” In sleep apnea, you stop breathing during sleep. While apneic episodes may only last for a few seconds at a time, they can have severe consequences for your health. Researchers have definitively linked sleep apnea to problems ranging from excessive daytime fatigue to high blood pressure. In fact, sleep apnea can lead to dire conditions such as type 2 diabetes, stroke, cardiac arrhythmias, and even death.
Many people believe that sleep apnea only occurs in the elderly or overweight. This belief is far from true. There are actually three main forms of sleep apnea:
- Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA): This is by far the most common type of sleep apnea. OSA is caused by a mechanical blockage of the throat as the throat relaxes during sleep.
- Central sleep apnea (CSA): CSA is usually caused by a nervous system issue where signals from the brain to the diaphragm are disrupted or absent. This condition is far less common than OSA and typically occurs in the setting of serious disease.
- Complex sleep apnea syndrome (CSAS): This condition is a combination of OSA and CSA.
So what are the specific causes of obstructive sleep apnea? The answers are mostly gravity and anatomy. Everyone has a unique anatomy, and some people’s throats are simply narrower than others. Having a narrow throat means that your airway is prone to obstruction. Other anatomical peculiarities can also contribute to airway obstruction. When you’re unconscious, such as during sleep, you don’t have active control over most of your muscles. Gravity takes over, and your throat may relax to the point that it becomes obstructed.
Common symptoms of OSA include feeling unnaturally fatigued during the day, frequently waking during the night, bruxism (nocturnal teeth grinding) and snoring, choking, or gasping during sleep.
Sleep Apnea in Children
Among the general population, sleep apnea is commonly thought of as an adult disease. But, unfortunately, sleep apnea can also affect children. In actuality, a significant portion of the pediatric population suffers from some degree of OSA.
Symptoms of OSA in children include grinding the teeth during sleep, excessively restless sleep or squirming during sleep, loud breathing or snoring, and awakening frequently for bathroom trips or bedwetting.
It can be disturbing for a parent to suspect sleep apnea in their child, but you’re not alone. Speak with your dentist, and bring your child in for an evaluation. Your dentist can help diagnose sleep apnea and provide non-invasive, effective treatments.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea Treatments
Fortunately, there are many treatments available for OSA. Some of these treatments may not be right for you, and they vary in their effectiveness. Here’s a look at obstructive sleep apnea treatments, arranged from least invasive to most invasive.
Perhaps the most straightforward and simplest solution is positional change. Sleep apnea is much more likely to occur when you sleep supine, meaning on your back. This is due to gravity working on the structure of your throat. If you can, switching to a different sleep position may be helpful. Just be aware that apnea may still occur as you change position during sleep.
Next is lifestyle change. Excess weight can contribute to OSA, and losing weight is helpful for many patients. However, not everyone who has obstructive sleep apnea is overweight.
The next two treatments are a mandibular advancement device and myofunctional therapy. A mandibular advancement device is a custom, removable appliance your dentist provides. You wear it while sleeping, and it gently moves your lower jaw forward to free your airway. Myofunctional therapy is a series of exercises designed to keep your airway muscles from going completely slack during sleep.
CPAP/APAP/BiPAP are machines that keep your airway open during sleep via forced air. During sleep, you must wear a mask, and many patients find this intolerable. However, these machines are often helpful if you can endure the mask.
Surgery is typically a last resort for OSA patients. However, there have been cases where throat surgeries have relieved severe sleep apnea. Unfortunately, many patients find the recovery period from these surgeries difficult.
Speak with Your Dentist
Dr. Bergan is here to help! We can send you home with a take home sleep study for 3-5 nights to analyze your sleep and see if there is a breathing issue. Depending on the sleep test results, we will suggest which treatment options are appropriate. Please call (303) 499-0367 to schedule your sleep consult.