Sleep apnea is much more common than people might think. In fact, estimates suggest that more than 18 million Americans and 100 million people worldwide suffer from this sleep disorder which is characterized by an interruption in the normal pattern of breathing while you sleep. Whilst there are two types of sleep apnea, obstructive sleep apnea or OSA is by far the most prevalent. It occurs when the muscles in the back of the throat fail to keep your airway open despite your natural instinct to breathe. This causes you to temporarily stop breathing, until your body recognizes that there is a lack of oxygen and triggers your brain to take an extra-large breath. This is enough to push past the blockage and resume normal breathing again. However, sleep apnea rarely occurs as just one episode during each period of sleep. In patients with severe OSA, it isn’t unheard of for them to experience up to 100 episodes of interrupted breathing during an 8-hour window of sleep.
The effects of sleep apnea can be significant. Patients can suffer from disturbed and poor-quality sleep, low blood oxygen levels, memory problems and mood swings. They are also at greater risk of developing high blood pressure, heart disease and depression, and more likely to be involved in accidents due to their daytime fatigue.
The less common type of sleep apnea is known as central sleep apnea or CSA. Central sleep apnea is a neurological condition in which the brain fails to properly control breathing during sleep. In the case that someone is diagnosed with CNS, they are almost always referred to a neurologist to help them find a treatment to reduce and control their sleep disorder.
Fortunately, there are also treatments available that can reduce and even eliminate obstructive sleep apnea and the detrimental impact that it can have on your life. Although these can be provided by your doctor, most cases of OSA get referred to dentists for treatment.
Obstructive sleep apnea is believed to have a number of factors that contribute towards its development. These are:
a small upper airway
abnormally large tonsils
a recessed chin
a large overbite
a large neck
being a smoker
drinking excessive amounts of alcohol or drinking alcohol before bed
taking recreational drugs
a genetic predisposition towards the disorder (parents or grandparents with the condition)
In virtually all cases of OSA, you can expect your dentist to make some recommendation relating to lifestyle changes that you can make which may ease your symptoms. In many instances, these will help to significantly reduce the number of episodes of sleep apnea that you are experiencing. Some of the changes that you may be recommended to consider may include:
eating a healthier, more balanced diet
cutting back on alcohol consumption, particularly before bed
changing certain medications which may be contributing towards the problem
changing your pillow or sleep position
If these changes alone don’t give you sufficient relief, your dentist will look at other options for treatment including:
CPAP or Continuous Positive Airway Pressure is a machine that delivers a constant supply of oxygen to your body via a mask that is placed over your nose and mouth while you sleep. This treatment has shown to be highly effective, although it can take some getting used to since initially, patients can find the mask uncomfortable.
There are also some devices that are worn inside your mouth to help reduce or eliminate sleep apnea. These work by repositioning the lower jaw and tongue so that the upper airway is opened more widely to allow oxygen through. These devices are usually custom-made to ensure the most comfortable fit.
If you would like to learn more about sleep apnea and the way in which your dentist can treat this common but compromising condition, please get in touch with our dental team who would be delighted to speak to you confidentially.