According to the National Center on Sleep Disorders, it is estimated that as many as 70 million Americans suffer from some type of sleep disorder. And of those 70 million, about 18 million suffer from a serious condition called sleep apnea.
What is Sleep Apnea?
Obstructive sleep apnea is a chronic sleeping disorder characterized as a series of episodes in which a person stops breathing while they are asleep. After a few seconds, the sleeper’s brain distinguishes they are not breathing and wakes them up, either partially or fully, and often with a loud gasp or snort. The sleeper then falls back asleep and the entire cycle is repeated all over again.
This pattern of interrupted breathing can sometimes occur hundreds of time per night and, in many cases, the sleep apnea sufferer is not even aware it is happening. They generally wake up feeling unrested and groggy, despite thinking they slept all night.
The Important Role of Sleep
For those suffering from sleep apnea, their quality of sleep is greatly affected, which in turn affects their overall health. Each time the sleeper stops breathing and their body is force-awakened, their natural sleep cycle is disrupted. They often wake during an important cycle of deep REM sleep, where their body performs many essential reparative and healing functions, and thrust back into a lighter sleep. Without the restoring power of deep, restful, uninterrupted sleep, a person’s quality of life is deeply affected.
If you suffer from sleep apnea, you may feel foggy-headed, irritable and distracted, and your relationships and work performance may suffer. It is also true that individuals who don’t sleep well, don’t heal well, which makes it impossible to maintain optimal health. In fact, sleep apnea is considered a risk factor for numerous serious health issues such as heart attack, stroke, diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure. A 2012 study by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health demonstrated a five-fold risk of cancer when a person has sleep apnea.
Recognizing Sleep Apnea Symptoms & Treatment
So how does someone recognize they have sleep apnea? Heavy snoring is the key indicator, but some symptoms are not so obvious. Dentists are often the first to become aware of a potential problem. A dentist trained in treating sleep disordered breathing issues can help detect some of the less obvious symptoms, which include morning headaches, excessive daytime sleepiness, weight gain, waking with a dry mouth or sore throat (caused by open mouth breathing during sleep), feeling groggy or unrested, irritability and mood changes, and a change in your level of concentration or memory.
To help screen for sleep apnea, a dentist might ask you to answer some of the following questions:
- Is it difficult for you to fall asleep?
- How many hours do you sleep each night?
- What is your normal bedtime and wake time? Does this schedule change?
- How many times do you wake up at night?
- Do you wake up feeling refreshed?
- Is it difficult for you to breath during your nose while laying down?
- Does a small amount of alcohol give you a headache?
- Do you have trouble concentrating during the day? Do you experience memory loss?
If your dentist suspects you have sleep apnea or another type of sleeping disorder, they will send you to a sleep medicine specialist to confirm the diagnosis. If diagnosed, a patient generally returns to the dentist for treatment.
Sleep Apnea Treatment
Treatment for sleep apnea depends on the severity of your condition. One of the most widely used, non-evasive and effective methods of treatment is oral appliance therapy. A dentist can fabricate this oral appliance for you, which you wear while sleeping to keep your lower jaw and tongue from falling back and blocking your airway. Using this oral appliance will help you breathe deeply during sleep, without interruptions or disturbances. It’s simple, effective and easy to use.
However, more serious cases of sleep apnea may require more aggressive forms of treatment. These may include surgery or a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) therapy, which uses a machine to deliver air through a mask you wear while sleeping. While CPAP is a popular nonsurgical method for treating sleep apnea, it may take you awhile to be comfortable using it. Some people cannot tolerate its use at all.
Children Can Suffer Too
Sleep apnea also affects children, generally due a child’s large tonsils obstructing the airway. Some signs and symptoms common in children that have been linked to sleep apnea include:
- Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
- Developmental and learning delays
- Mood disorders
- Bed wetting
- Growth problems
- Nightmares or night terror
Because sleep apnea can go undiagnosed for years, it’s important to keep an open dialog with your health care professional. If you suspect you may have sleep apnea or another type of sleep disorder, contact Integrative Dental Solutions to schedule a personalized consultation.