It is estimated that 18–22 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea, many of whom are unaware that they even have it. It occurs when sleep is interrupted throughout the night as breathing stops for short periods of time. This can happen hundreds of times in one night, and since the brain and body are being starved of oxygen, sleep apnea can lead to serious health problems including high blood pressure and decreased interest in sex.
In order for you to get a better understanding, we are providing a breakdown of sleep apnea symptoms, causes and treatments.
Symptoms: Chronic snoring is a strong indication of sleep apnea; in fact, half of people who snore tend to have sleep apnea. Anyone can be affected by apnea, but it is most common among men.
Types: Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), is the most common type, and it occurs when the muscles of the throat relax and fail to keep the airway open. Central sleep apnea is not as common and occurs when the brain fails to signal muscles to breathe.
Causes: Lifestyle risk factors, such as excessive weight, tobacco and alcohol use, are major contributors to airway obstruction. Making lifestyle changes can reduce apnea. Less variable risk factors include genetics, ethnicity, being over the age of 40, a large neck circumference, and a narrow airway.
Diagnosis: Obstructive sleep apnea is typically diagnosed by using polysomnography—a type of multi-parametric sleep study—in a hospital setting. A physician performs this study to diagnose and determine the severity of obstructive sleep apnea. Patients are often asked to document their sleep patterns prior to the study.
CPAP machine: The most common form of treatment is the use of a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. The machine delivers pressurized air through a mask that is worn over your nose while you sleep. This effectively keeps the upper airway passages open, preventing snoring and apnea.
Sleep appliance: The CPAP machine tends to be uncomfortable and cumbersome, and a simple alternative is to wear a sleep appliance that has been fabricated by your dentist or oral surgeon. Similar to an orthodontic retainer, the appliance is worn intraorally. It brings the lower jaw forward and allows the airway passages to open. They are highly successful in reducing snoring and mild to moderate cases of sleep apnea.
Upper airway surgery: The complexity of the surgery is case specific depending on anatomy and severity of symptoms. Surgical options to enlarge the airway can include removing the tonsils (tonsillectomy), removing bone from the upper and lower jaw (osteotomy), trimming of the uvula utilizing laser therapy (uvuloplasty), trimming of the bulky soft palate (ululopalatopharyngoplasty), and nasal surgery to repair a deviated septum or remove polyps (spetoplasty). In morbidly obese patients, bariatric surgery or liposuction may be recommended. In extreme cases, a tracheotomy may be performed. This is usually indicated in the patient with an extensive medical history and the presence of other medical conditions.
If you suspect that you have sleep apnea, talk to your dentist or family physician about treatment options. Sleep apnea not only affects the patient, but also the family, coworkers and loved ones surrounding them.
Rachel Hermann, R.D.A.