Sleep apnea, a form of sleep-related breathing disorders that is estimated to affect some 22 million Americans, is sometimes thought of as the “quiet culprit” lurking behind many other maladies. But ask anyone who sleeps alongside a sufferer, and you'll get a different response: It isn't quiet at all! Instead, it's often marked by loud snoring and scary episodes where breathing seems to stop. If you've ever worried that you or someone you care about may have this condition, here are five facts you should know.
1) Sleep apnea is a potentially deadly disease
For one thing, it leads to chronic fatigue that can make accidents far more likely — a special concern in potentially dangerous situations, like operating machinery or driving a vehicle. It also appears to be related to heart conditions such as high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, coronary artery disease, and even stroke. Plus, it can lead to weight gain, depression and mood disorders.
2) People with sleep apnea may wake hundreds of times every night
These “micro-arousals” may occur 50 or more times per hour, and may keep a person from getting any relaxing sleep — even though they retain no memory of the episodes. That's why people who suffer from sleep apnea often go through their days on the verge of exhaustion. And they aren't the only ones who suffer: Their bed partners may also be kept up throughout the night, becoming anxious and irritable.
3) Persistent snoring can be a symptom of sleep apnea
Snoring is caused when breath being drawn into the lungs is obstructed by soft tissue structures in the upper airway. Most everyone snores sometimes… but chronic loud snoring is a common symptom of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) — and the louder and more frequent the snoring, the greater the likelihood of OSA. To confirm a diagnosis of sleep apnea, a sleep study using special monitors may be conducted in a clinical setting, or an at-home test may be used.
4) Your dentist may be able to help diagnose and treat sleep apnea
What does dentistry have to do with sleep apnea? For one thing, sleep apnea is a disease that involves structures in the oral cavity — an area dentists are quite familiar with. Sometimes, fatigued folks who suffer from OSA begin snoring when they recline in the dental chair, showing their symptoms firsthand. But even if their patients don't fall asleep, dentists with proper training are recognized by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) as being able to provide first line therapy for mild to moderate sleep disorders.
5) An oral appliance is a good step to try before more invasive treatments
If it's appropriate in your situation, your dentist can custom-fabricate an oral appliance that may alleviate sleep-related breathing disorders. This device, worn while you're sleeping, helps to maintain an open airway in the throat and to reduce breathing problems. With a success rate of around 80%, in many cases it's comparable to the more complex CPAP (continuous positive air pressure) machines, but people often find it easier to wear. Plus, it's a non-invasive treatment that can be explored before deciding on a more involved treatment, such as surgery.
If you would like more information about dentistry and sleep problems, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more by reading the Dear Doctor magazine articles “Sleep Disorders and Dentistry” and “Sleep Apnea FAQs.”