If you sleep near someone who snores regularly, you may just think that they have an annoying habit that is depriving you of a quality night of rest. However, what you may not realize is that snoring can be a key indicator of a condition that is much more sinister affects an increasingly large slice of the population – sleep apnea.
What is sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea is the name given to a condition that now affects as many as 4% of the U.S. population. Although there are several types of sleep apnea, obstructive sleep apnea (also referred to as OSA) is by far the most common.
What happens during an episode of sleep apnea?
Patients who have OSA often sound like they are either struggling to breathe or holding their breath while they are asleep. This is because while they are sleeping, the soft tissue in the throat and the tongue relaxes so much that the patient’s airway becomes narrow or closes completely for a few moments. This interrupts the subconscious pattern of breathing and limits the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain. The brain then sends a frantic signal to the body to remind it to breathe, causing it to try and take a much bigger breath than normal to help clear the obstruction. This will sound like a sudden snort or gasp of breath.
In severe cases of OSA, a patient could experience 30 or more episodes of this during one night of sleep.
What causes sleep apnea?
Obstructive sleep apnea has been linked to a number of causes which include:
Obesity. Studies have shown that people who are overweight or obese are more likely to develop OSA. This is most likely due to an excess of fat and soft tissue in the face and neck.
Smoking. We all know that smoking is bad news for our overall health and wellbeing. However, nicotine can also cause inflammation and irritation of the airway, and cause fluid retention that can interrupt our regular breathing.
Alcohol. Alcohol helps to relax our bodies, including the muscles and soft tissue in our throat. This puts people who drink excessively, particularly before sleep, at increased risk of developing OSA.
Age. Sagging skin and muscle is a natural part of aging largely thanks to decreased collagen production in our bodies. The muscle and soft tissue of our head and neck is no exception.
Enlarged tonsils or adenoids. Patients who suffer regularly from tonsillitis or have frequently enlarged tonsils or adenoids may find that they obstruct their airway and cause them to develop OSA.
Family history. Many experts believe that there is a hereditary factor in the development of OSA.
Symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea
Although regular snoring is one of the most identifiable symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea, there are some other indicators of the condition. They can include:
Labored breathing during sleep.
Excessive daytime fatigue.
Depression or mood swings.
Waking from sleep feeling physically exhausted.
Waking with frequent headaches which can be caused by a lack of oxygenated blood to the brain during episodes of OSA.
Treating sleep apnea
The first step for treating OSA involves looking at your lifestyle. If you are overweight, drinking alcohol regularly before bed or smoking then by changing these elements of your lifestyle you will improve your susceptibility to OSA as well as your overall health and life expectancy. However, many patients that successfully address their lifestyle still find that they also need additional treatment to help eliminate their sleep apnea.
Oral appliance therapy
You may be recommended to try oral appliance therapy which involves using either a tongue retainer or mandibular advancement device (MAD) in your mouth to improve airflow while you sleep. Tongue retainers work by changing the position of the tongue during sleep so that it does not relax and block the airway. Mandibular advancement devices adjust the position of your jaw which moves the tongue forward and creates a larger space behind the palate.
Oral devices for sleep apnea can take some getting used to, but they are largely successful in treating mild to moderate cases of OSA.
Positive Airway Pressure (PAP)
Positive Airway Pressure is another non-surgical treatment which is more often seen in patients with moderate to severe OSA. Patients using PAP treatment wear a mask over their mouth and nose while they sleep. The mask is attached to a machine which delivers a positive supply of air with a force strong enough to push past the blockage. There are different varieties of a PAP machine, but the most common is the CPAP machine which delivers continuous positive air pressure for the duration of the time it is being worn. Again, wearing the mask can take some getting used to, but PAP machines are largely very successful in treating OSA.
If these treatments are not successful in treating your obstructive sleep apnea, then surgical intervention may be necessary. To find out more about sleep apnea, or if you would like to schedule a consultation with Dr. Daniel, please make contact with our offices where our reassuring and knowledgeable team look forward to helping you achieve the quality of sleep that you deserve.