Sleep apnea is a fairly common sleep disorder, but not a lot of people know about it. Here are the essentials.
Sleep disorders are relatively common in the United States. For example, insomnia, one of the most predominant sleep disorders in the country, affects about 70 million Americans every year.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, insomnia is “a persistent difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep, even when a person has the opportunity to do so.” Insomnia can be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term). But there another common sleeping disorder is sleep apnea.
What is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts. If you have sleep apnea, you may not remember these episodes of disrupted breathing. Sleep apnea usually is a chronic (ongoing) condition that disrupts your sleep. When your breathing pauses or becomes very shallow, you’ll often move out of deep sleep and into a light sleep.
As a result, your sleep quality is poor, making you tired during the day. Sleep apnea occurs more frequently in adults, but children can have the disorder, too.
There are three types of sleep apnea:
- Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA): The more common of the two forms of apnea occurs when your throat muscles intermittently relax and block your airway during sleep.
- Central sleep apnea (CSA): Unlike OSA, the airway is not blocked by your throat muscles. Instead, CSA is caused by a problem with the brain signals controlling muscle movement.
- Complex sleep apnea syndrome: When someone has both OSA and CSA, it’s called complex or mixed sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea can happen to anyone at any age, even children. But certain factors increase the risk of developing this disorder. One of them is genetics. If sleep apnea runs in your family, you’re more likely to have it.
Other risk factors include:
- Being overweight or obese is the most common cause of OSA
- A narrow throat or small jawbone
- Use of alcohol, sedatives, or tranquilizers before bedtime
- Smoking can irritate and inflame the upper airway
- Enlarged tonsils or adenoids in children
- Nasal congestion from a cold or allergy
What are the Symptoms?
The most common symptom of all types of sleep apnea is snoring. But not everyone who snores has sleep apnea. The only way to know if you have sleep apnea is to see a doctor.
If you have OSA, you may stop breathing when you sleep. This will cause you to snore loudly and wake up frequently throughout the night, gasping for air. People with sleep apnea also have high blood pressure and are at risk for heart problems and stroke.
CSA can cause you to wake up frequently throughout the night, gasping for air. You may snore, but not as loudly as someone with OSA.
Complex sleep apnea syndrome occurs when someone has both CSA and OSA. The symptoms of complex sleep apnea are similar to those of the other two types but more severe.
How is Sleep Apnea Diagnosed?
If you think you might have sleep apnea, see your doctor. They may refer you to a sleep specialist-a doctor trained in diagnosing and treating sleep disorders.
They can diagnose you in various ways, but an overnight sleep study called a polysomnogram is the most common. You will stay overnight in a sleep lab, where you will be monitored by sensors placed on your head, face, chest, and legs. The sensors measure your brain waves, the oxygen level in your blood, heart rate and breathing, and eye and leg movements during the night.
Sleep Apnea and Oral Problems
Another thing that exacerbates sleep apnea is oral problems. A person with an underbite, for example, may have a higher risk of developing sleep apnea. An underbite is when the lower teeth protrude past the upper teeth. This can cause the airway to be narrower, making it more likely for a person to snore and develop sleep apnea.
Moreover, an underbite can also make sleep apnea more dangerous. This is because when the airway is narrower, it’s more likely for a person to stop breathing at night. When this happens, the oxygen levels in the blood drop. It can lead to serious health problems like heart disease and stroke.
Many dentists treat this immediately. They do it by using a device called an oral expander appliance. This is a custom-made mouthpiece that helps to keep the airway open. It looks similar to a mouthguard and is worn during sleep.
Another way to treat an underbite is with surgery. They can do this by moving the mouth guard lower jaw forward or by breaking and resetting the bones in the upper and lower jaws. Surgery is usually only recommended if other treatments haven’t worked.
If you have sleep apnea, you must see a dentist or ENT specialist. They can help treat the underlying cause of your sleep apnea and improve your symptoms. By knowing these things, hopefully, you can determine whether you have sleep apnea or not.