Sleep apnea is a sleeping disorder which briefly, but repeatedly, interrupts your breathing during sleep. “Apnea” refers to a pause in breathing which lasts at least ten seconds, and sleep apnea occurs when the muscles in the back of the throat fail to keep the airway open as usual, causing fragmented sleep and low blood oxygen levels.
Sleep apnea can be characterized by loud, heavy snoring, often accompanied by frequent interruptions of your sleep and daytime fatigue. If untreated, sleep apnea can be detrimental to your health, so it’s important to see a doctor if you think you’re suffering from sleep apnea.
The first step to understanding what you’re dealing with is to know the types of sleep apnea, and their symptoms. For sleep apnea, there are three different types you could be diagnosed with:
- Obstructive Sleep Apnea; this is the most common type, and occurs when the soft tissue at the back of your throat relaxes during sleep, blocking the airway, and often causing loud snoring.
- Central Sleep Apnea; this type is much less common, and involves the central nervous system, occurring when the brain fails to signal the muscles which control breathing. People with central sleep apnea rarely snore, but are often aware of their many awakenings throughout the night because of it, and often experience panic along with excessive blood Co2 levels.
- Complex Sleep Apnea; a combination of both Obstructive and Central sleep apnea.
Symptoms and Signs:
It is always recommended that you see a doctor if you think you’re suffering from sleep apnea, as it can be tricky to identify on your own. If you have a partner, you can also ask them to record anything unusual that happens while you are sleeping, and to look out for these common sleep apnea characteristics:
- Consistent loud snoring
- Choking or gasping during sleep
- Insomnia or frequent awakenings throughout the night followed by shortness of breath
- Forgetfulness or difficulty concentrating
- Morning headaches
- Uncharacteristic moodiness, depression, or irritability
- Pauses in breathing lasting 10-20 seconds or more
More than 42 million American adults suffer from sleep apnea, which factors to about 1 in 5 adults having Obstructive Sleep Apnea, and 1 in every 15 having moderate to severe sleep apnea. Men tend to be at an increased risk, as 25% of middle-aged men suffer from this sleep disorder, whereas only 9% of middle-aged women suffer.
What Should I Do?
While you should definitely see your doctor if you think you are suffering from sleep apnea, your dentist may also be able to help. Research has shown that oral appliance therapy can be an effective treatment for those suffering from obstructive sleep apnea. Dentists use an oral appliance similar in appearance to a mouth guard to help. The purpose of this appliance is to reposition the jaw and tongue to improve airflow. These devices are as easy to wear as most retainers or other removable dental appliances, and are much easier than the Continuous Positive Airway Pressure system (or CPAP, pictured above), that many have used in the past to treat mild to severe cases of sleep apnea. Your dentist may be able to recognize an issue faster than your physician, due to the frequency in which you see them. Mentioning any signs or symptoms that you’ve noticed to your dental care provider can do a lot to get you on the road to a good nights’ sleep!