Sleep apnea is a condition in which your breathing is repeatedly disrupted as you sleep. You stop and start breathing all night long. The most common form of mild to moderate sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea, caused by changes in the upper airways during sleep as the muscles of the body relax.
Sleep apnea can affect anyone, of any age or gender, although certain risk factors make certain individuals more susceptible to sleep apnea than others. Sleep apnea, even in mild to moderate forms, can be dangerous as it can affect every area of health, from your daytime alertness to your heart and lungs. Let’s take a look at mild to moderate obstructive sleep apnea, its symptoms, its risk factors, and how patients can get a better night’s sleep from a trip to the dentist.
What Causes Sleep Apnea?
Obstructive sleep apnea is commonly caused by:
- A large neck – Having a 17-inch neck (for men) or a 16-inch neck (for women) places you at risk for developing sleep apnea. While some individuals have a naturally large neck, being overweight can create a larger-than-normal neck size.
- Undersized or receding lower jaw or chin
- Protruding lower jaw or chin
- Narrow upper jaw
- Enlarged tonsils
- Enlarged tongue
- The soft palate is stiffer, larger than normal, or both
- The soft palate and/or the muscles around it collapse easily
- Muscle weakness in the face, throat, and/or neck from injury, illness, or condition such as stroke
- In children and infants, the most common causes of obstructive sleep apnea are malformations of the skull or face; overgrown tonsils, adenoids, or both; and neuromuscular conditions or disorders.
Obstructive sleep apnea is characterized by loud snoring and other symptoms, including:
- Daytime fatigue and sleepiness
- Dry mouth upon waking
- A headache upon waking, or developing shortly after waking
- Attention and focus problems
Risk factors for obstructive sleep apnea include:
- A narrowed airway, either caused by a wider neck circumference, fat deposits, tonsil and/or adenoid inflammation, or just an inherently narrow throat
- Being male
- Being over 40
- Race (a significant number of sufferers under 40 are of African descent)
- Alcohol and drug use (any depressant or sedative, even prescription, can cause the throat muscles to relax enough to cause sleep apnea)
Treatment for mild to moderate sleep apnea:
- Treatment begins with a diagnosis, either through an inpatient sleep study or through an in-home sleep monitor.
- Children are often aided by the removal of enlarged tonsils and/or adenoids.
- Some sleep apnea patients may be prescribed a CPAP—a machine that regulates the sleeper’s breathing.
- Many sleep apnea patients cannot tolerate or are not helped by the use of a CPAP device. These patients are most often treated for their condition by a dentist. Dental appliances can be fitted into the patient’s mouth. There are two common types of dental appliances or devices commonly prescribed for mild to moderate obstructive sleep apnea.
- Mandibular Advancement Device – These devices are similar to many sports or athletic mouth guards. They fit in the mouth and hold the lower jaw slightly forward and down. This allows for adequate air flow during sleep to eliminate the sleep apnea.
- Tongue Retraining Device – This dental appliance is a splint for the tongue that holds it in place during sleep. This allows the airway to be kept as open as possible.
Sleep apnea affects about 18 million Americans, 2% of whom are children. It can have serious health implications if left untreated for long, so it’s nothing to snore at. If you suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, please see your medical or dental professional soon.