The What and Why of Sleep Apnea

A piece of paper that reads "Diagnosis: Sleep Apnea" near a stethoscope and some medication.

Two common questions I hear when talking to patients about sleep breathing disorders are:

What is obstructive sleep apnea? Why is this happening to me?


Sleep apnea is a condition in which the upper airway collapses during sleep. This causes the sleeper to literally stop breathing. Each of these stoppages is called an apnea. Apneas can occur a few times each night or even hundreds of times.

Why this occurs is simple. The throat contains many muscles that control our airway and allow us to speak, breath and swallow. During sleep our muscles relax and this causes the airway to narrow and sometimes to become completely blocked. Think of a garden hose with a kink that stops the flow of water.

Because the airway is blocked, the oxygen levels in the body fall. The sleeper will typically waken with a gasp and begin breathing again. The remarkable thing about this process is that the sleeper does not remember waking during the night.

Most people with sleep apnea are not aware of their abnormal nighttime breathing until a bed partner complains or extreme daytime fatigue prompts them to seek medical help.

Fortunately there are good treatment options for obstructive sleep apnea. While the CPAP is the gold standard for treatment, many patients find sleeping with the masks, hoses and machine difficult and stop treatment. An oral appliance can also be used to treat sleep apnea and most patients find them comfortable and easy to use.

For more information about obstructive sleep apnea and to discover if you are a candidate for oral appliance therapy please contact Dr. Jeffrey W. Cross, at StoneRidge Dental Care in Frederick, MD at (301) 662-0300.

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