BY DAVID BUICE
Millions of Americans fail to get their needed seven to eight hours of good, restful nightly sleep. Quite often, the culprit robbing them of this essential for good health is sleep apnea. Left untreated, this disorder can lead to serious health issues, including high blood pressure, enlargement of the heart (cardiomegaly), heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and may even result in sudden cardiac death.
What is Sleep Apnea?
Briefly stated, sleep apnea is a serious disorder that occurs when a person’s breathing is interrupted while they sleep — sometimes hundreds of times a night — causing them to partially wake up as they struggle to breathe. The two most prevalent types of sleep apnea are obstructive and central.
Obstructive (OSA) – This more common type of sleep apnea results from the partial or complete blockage of the upper airway during sleep, forcing the diaphragm and chest muscles to work harder as pressure increases to open the blockage. These episodes interfere with sound sleep, reduce oxygen flow to vital organs, and may cause irregular heart rhythm.
Central – Central sleep apnea is related to the functioning of the central nervous system. The airway is not blocked, but the brain fails to signal the muscles to breathe because of instability in the brain’s respiratory control center.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
It’s wise to seek medical assistance if you have any of these potential symptoms.
- Excessive daytime sleepiness
- Chronic loud snoring
- Insomnia, either difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Unexplained symptoms like a sore throat or morning headaches
- Breathing stoppages or abnormal breathing patterns witnessed by your partner
- Waking up with shortness of breath or choking or gasping sounds
If you suspect you’re suffering from sleep apnea, talk with your primary care doctor and confer with a sleep specialist. These doctors include physicians certified by the American Board of Sleep Medicine and specially trained dentists who collaborate with sleep medicine physicians and treat OSA.
The specialist will collect information on your medical history and discuss the symptoms you’re experiencing. They may also recommend a sleep study to collect information on your breathing pattern, blood oxygen level, and any other changes occurring in your body while you sleep. This information helps them to confirm or rule out sleep apnea.
Depending on the diagnosis and the likely cause of your sleep apnea, basic treatment options include weight loss, exercise, lifestyle modifications, and changing your sleeping position.
Nonsurgical solutions include a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine, which provides a steady flow of oxygen through a mask worn while sleeping, designed to keep your upper airway passages open. For those with mild to moderate OSA who are uncomfortable wearing a CPAP, a custom-made oral appliance worn in the mouth while sleeping may be recommended. Similar to a mouth guard, this device is specially designed to keep your tongue and soft tissues in the mouth from collapsing as you sleep by moving the jaw slightly forward and down.
Surgical treatments include advanced procedures to remove tissue from the back of the mouth and the top of the throat and an implant called Inspire that opens your airway as you sleep by delivering mild stimulation to the hypoglossal nerve, which controls the movement of your tongue and other key airway muscles.