Sleep Apnea Treatments
Sleep apnea is more common than you might think. Did you know as many as 1 in 5 adults suffer from mild sleep apnea? Nearly 1 in 15 suffers from a more severe case.
What’s more, many people with sleep apnea don’t even know they have it, and many who do know struggle to find the right treatment.
Today let’s talk about how to tell if you have sleep apnea and what you can do about it.
I’ll also show you an increasingly popular treatment option your dentist may be able to provide as an alternative to an uncomfortable breathing machine.
What Is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder in which your breathing involuntarily stops and starts while you sleep. In fact, apnea is a Greek word that translates to “without breath.”
Doctors have identified 3 different types of sleep apnea:
Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type by far. It happens when your airway gets blocked (usually by your throat muscles or other soft tissues) during sleep.
Central sleep apnea occurs when your breathing muscles aren’t receiving proper signals from your brain.
Complex sleep apnea syndrome is a mix of both obstructive and central sleep apnea.
As you might imagine, this is more than just a nuisance - any type of sleep apnea can be potentially dangerous, and significantly impactful to your overall health. I’ll focus on obstructive sleep apnea, because it’s so common.
This illustration shows what obstructive sleep apnea can look like (when the upper airway is blocked by soft tissues in the throat, which prevents air from passing):
Sleep apnea has been getting press recently because it has been linked to so many other diseases. For example, individuals with sleep apnea are also more likely to suffer from conditions like obesity, insomnia, hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.
That’s why proper treatment is so important. If you think you might have a form of sleep apnea, see your doctor. The right treatment can make all the difference.
How to Recognize Sleep Apnea
Since sleep apnea happens when you’re asleep, how can you tell if you have it? The only way to know for sure is to talk to a sleep specialist, but the following symptoms are common in sleep apnea sufferers:
Loud snoring or other irregular breathing
Sounds of gasping or choking during sleep
Waking up abruptly and feeling out of breath
Trouble sleeping through the night
Frequent headaches in the morning
Daytime sleepiness, irritability, or trouble concentrating
Waking up with a dry mouth or sore throat
There’s no one symptom that’s always present. If you sleep near someone else, ask them to pay attention to your breathing and listen for loud snoring or sudden pauses in your breathing.
Know that, because sleep apnea impacts sleep quality, you may also experience many common symptoms of sleep deprivation. Those can include depression, anxiety, forgetfulness, sleepiness, and general fatigue.
Who Gets Sleep Apnea?
As I mentioned before, many people have sleep apnea and don’t even know it.
Why? Most people with obstructive sleep apnea stop breathing and wake up between 5 and 30 times each hour during sleep, but they often fall back asleep so quickly they don’t even remember waking up. That’s why many people with sleep apnea aren’t even aware their sleep is being interrupted.
So who is at risk? Anyone can have sleep apnea, but these characteristics can put you at a higher risk:
Obesity. Your risk for sleep apnea increases four-fold if you are obese.
A thicker neck. Men with a neck circumference of 17+ inches and women with a neck circumference of more than 15+ inches are more likely to have sleep apnea.
Being male. Men are twice as likely to have sleep apnea.
50+ years of age.
Genetic disposition. You can inherit risk factors like a naturally small airway, large tonsils, or allergies causing nasal congestion. Find out if you have a family history of sleep apnea.
Smoking. Smokers are 3 times more likely to have sleep apnea than nonsmokers. The good news is, doctors say your risk drops if you quit!
High blood pressure.
Endocrine and metabolic disorders like hypothyroidism or cystic fibrosis.
Excessive use of alcohol or sedatives, which can relax the muscles in your throat.
Treating Sleep Apnea
Thankfully, sleep apnea is treatable and, in some cases, reversible. The most common treatments include breathing machines, oral appliances, and lifestyle changes.
Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines are considered the “gold standard” of treatment, though new options are starting to become more widely available.
CPAP machines work while you sleep by delivering pressurize air into your airway through a mask. The pressure “props” your upper airway open, preventing it from collapsing. When your airway does not collapse, you do not have the apneic events.
CPAP machines are effective, but they can also be uncomfortable -- sometimes so uncomfortable patients stop wearing them altogether. The CPAP mask may not stay in place if the patient is a side- or stomach-sleeper. They can also be noisy and disruptive to others in the room.
Some CPAP machines can also make your mouth dry at night. This is concerning from a dental perspective, because it increases your risk of developing cavities. There are a few products a dentist can recommend to help protect your teeth from a dry mouth, many of them with prescription levels of fluoride. If that sounds like you, let me know. I’d love to help.
Mandibular Repositioning Devices
These days, oral devices made by dentists are becoming a much more common treatment because they can be as effective as CPAP machines and are a lot more comfortable and less cumbersome to wear. Patients are much more likely to want to wear them every night than a CPAP machine!
Most of these oral devices work by bringing your jaw forward into a position where your airway stays open naturally. So instead of air pressure being forced into your airway, your body is put in a position where it can breathe normally.
It used to be that only individuals with mild and moderate sleep apnea were candidates for oral appliances, but for individuals with severe sleep apnea who do not tolerate wearing the CPAP, sleep specialists are starting to recommend oral appliances as the next best alternative.
One look at the CPAP machine in the last section and I'm sure you'll understand why many patients cannot get used to wearing one!
The best news of all? These oral devices aren’t just an experimental treatment anymore. Over 100 different types are now FDA approved for the treatment of obstructive sleep apnea.
Your doctor might recommend making some lifestyle adjustments along with or instead of other treatments.
A few healthy lifestyle changes can make more difference than you might think. Here are a few methods most doctors recommend:
Try to get your body to a healthy weight
Exercise (Even if you don’t lose any weight, exercise can help!)
Sleep on your side, not your back
If possible, avoid alcohol, tranquilizers, muscle relaxers, some sleeping pills, and other medications that can cause your throat muscles to relax.
Keep your nose from getting congested. Try a saline spray or even nasal strips.
Ready to Make a Change?
I hope this post helped you learn more about sleep apnea and which treatment options are available. Keep in mind that sleep apnea is different for everyone, so a treatment that works great for one person might not work as well for someone else. And any treatment for sleep apnea always starts with a medical diagnosis by a sleep medicine specialist.
If you’ve had it with your CPAP machine, an oral appliance that repositions your jaw might be a better fit for you.
If you have more questions about how they work or want to know more about the different types of appliances available, give my office a call at (540)-298-6696 and schedule an appointment with me.