Sleep Apnea: Signs, Causes, and Treatment of this Common Disorder

A man sleeps on his back while his female partner holds her pillow over her ears and looks at the ceiling, unable to sleep.

Sleep apnea is a very common, but very serious condition that can leave a lasting negative impact on your health if not treated and managed properly. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the upper airway becomes obstructed as you sleep resulting in extended and frequent pauses in breathing. These pauses in breathing can be detrimental to your health. The frequent and extended pauses in breathing cause your body’s oxygen levels to decrease, essentially starving your brain and other systems of the oxygen needed to thrive.

Signs You May Have Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea symptoms present themselves both at night and during the day when you’re awake. At night, symptoms are most often noticed by a family member or significant other rather than by the person who is suffering from the disorder. Night symptoms include loud snoring, gasping for air, and waking frequently without remembering. These are all indications that you or a loved one may suffer from sleep apnea. Many people who suffer from sleep apnea may not be aware that they are exhibiting these symptoms. The body will instinctively wake if it is unable to breathe, however these moments of waking up to gasp for air tend to be so brief that the person doesn’t usually remember waking up.

Daytime symptoms of the disorder are often residual effects of the symptoms experienced at night. Daytime sleepiness, morning headaches, and dry mouth are all symptoms that coincide with a lack of adequate rest and oxygen throughout the night. Some people also report waking feeling short of breath or like they’re choking.

Causes of Sleep Apnea

About 18 million people in the United States alone reportedly suffer from sleep apnea. However, it’s estimated that only about 80% of these people have been officially diagnosed with the disorder. Most people who suffer from the sleeping disorder are adults; however it has also been known to affect children, so no age group is protected from this dangerous disorder. Most often, those who are diagnosed with sleep apnea tend to be overweight and either have a large neck circumference or a narrow airway. Most people who’ve been diagnosed with sleep apnea are men, however many women suffer from the disorder as well. Having a family history of people who’ve suffered from sleep apnea, and smoking have also shown to be risk factors that increase your chances for the sleeping disorder.

Treating Sleep Apnea

Many times, sleep apnea can be treated with lifestyle changes. Living a healthier lifestyle can help decrease your risk factors. Some of the best things that you can do to reduce your odds of having sleep apnea or improve your symptoms if you already suffer from the disorder include quitting smoking and losing weight. These changes alone can reduce the effects of obstructive sleep apnea on your body.

There are also things that you can do at home to assist with your sleep apnea. Most sleep apnea episodes occur when you are sleeping on your back. By sleeping on your side, you will get a more restful night of sleep and have fewer sleep apnea occurrences. However, this can be difficult for people who naturally roll onto their back in their sleep. One remedy is to place a pillow or towel behind your back so that you don’t roll. Another trick is sewing a tennis ball into the back of your pajamas to make sleeping on your back uncomfortable and less desirable.

Dental appliances such as those offered by Jeffrey W. Cross, D.D.S., F.A.G.D can help treat mild to moderate sleep apnea. This is also a popular alternative for those who have not been able to tolerate other forms of treatment. The dental appliance repositions the jaw as you sleep to reduce the likelihood that your airway will become obstructed as you sleep.

Other treatment options include the popular CPAP machine. This machine provides continuous positive airway pressure through a mask that is worn over the nose and mouth. The gentle pressure is enough to keep your airway from collapsing. Your doctor will help calibrate the machine so that it is comfortable but still effective.

In some cases, surgery is the best treatment option, particularly in cases of enlarged tonsils and adenoids. This is a common treatment option for children who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea. Enlarged tonsils and adenoids are frequently the cause of their symptoms and are easily removed to provide an open airway for the child to be able to breathe freely as they sleep. Some children do outgrow their sleep apnea symptoms as the muscles in their throat mature. You’ll want to be sure to discuss all options with a medical professional.

Occasionally, more extensive surgery may be needed to realign the jaw to allow for a more open airway or remove additional tissue in the throat that may be blocking the airway. Another surgery that is growing in popularity is called Inspire therapy. A small pace maker is placed within your body to provide stimulation to airway muscles to keep them open.

Your doctor will be able to discuss any and all treatment options with you in order to determine which solution will best fit your unique situation.

If you have any questions about sleep apnea and treatment options, please contact Jeffrey W. Cross, D.D.S., F.A.G.D at (301) 662-0300.


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