Have you ever woken up feeling tired? Have you ever fallen asleep while driving? Even if you went to sleep early last night? Do you snore? Sleep apnea could be playing a role. There are countless undiagnosed and untreated cases of sleep apnea in our society (which have been linked to car accidents and machinery accidents from sufferers of sleep apnea, causing operator error).
The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea. It is a disorder in which a person periodically pauses breathing during sleep (usually an average of 10 seconds). This is usually associated with a reduction in blood oxygen saturation, which can lead to drowsy and excessive sleepiness during the day. Obstructive sleep apnea can also endanger your cardiovascular system.
The airway can become obstructed at several sites. The upper airway can be obstructed by excess tissue in the airway, large tonsils, a large tongue and/or a retruded lower jaw. Usually, the airway muscles are relaxing and collapsing during sleep in this case. Nasal congestion or blockages (as a deviated septum), large turbinate and collapsed nostrils can cause your throat and tongue muscles to contract at night. Ask your partner to observe you sleep if you are in doubt, and keep a sleep diary every night, recording when you fall asleep, when you wake up, if you recall any trouble breathing during the night and how refreshed you feel when you wake. Speak with a sleep specialist to have a sleep test.
If you do have sleep apnea, what does it mean? Depending on the type and severity of your sleep apnea, it could spell some very dangerous health effects, and could even be life-threatening. The main effects of sleep apnea are daytime drowsiness (sleep deprivation) and oxygen deprivation. Depriving your brain of oxygen while sleeping is particularly dangerous and can result in heart disease, high blood pressure, sexual dysfunction, and learning/memory problems. Some sufferers of sleep apnea report short term memory loss, as a result of oxygen deprivation during sleep.
Mild sleep apnea is usually treated by some behavioral changes. Losing weight and sleeping on your side is often recommended. There are several oral or dental devices that can help keep the airway open – most are for bringing your lower jaw forward, or elevating your soft palete to retrain the tongue from falling back, blocking the airway. Moderate to severe sleep apnea is usually treated with a CPAP system (continuous positive airway pressure) which straps around your head and ventilates oxygen into your respiratory system, ensuring a clear breathing pathway during sleep. There are surgical innovations, such as LAUP (laser assisted uvulo-plasty) as well as radio-frequency somnoplasties and radio-frequency volumetric reductions of the palate or tongue to help alleviate severe sleep apnea.
Behavioral modifications can also be advised from your dental professional to treat obstructive sleep apnea, after it has been diagnosed. Besides losing weight and sleeping on your side and controlling your allergies, a properly designed dental appliance can help you get healthier sleep. Your bed partner might get more peaceful sleep as well!