You have likely heard of sleep apnea at some point in your life. It has occasionally been in the news, such as in 2004, when Hall of Fame football legend Reggie White died of a cardiac arrhythmia, which was made worse by his chronic sleep apnea. But even if you know the name of the disorder, you may not understand it.
Simply put, sleep apnea means “pauses in breathing.” Its name comes from the Greek word apnea, which translates to “without breath.”
With sleep apnea, your breathing becomes obstructed due to your airway being blocked; which results in pauses in breath or excessively shallow breathing.
The most common form of sleep apnea is referred to as Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA), which accounts for 84 percent of all sleep apnea cases. OSA occurs when the muscles of the throat become too relaxed, which leads to airway blockage.
So what causes a person to develop OSA? More often than not, it is the result of being overweight. The walls of the windpipe become thicker in heavier individuals, due to the presence of more soft fat tissue. This, in turn, narrows the airway. In other cases, genetics are to blame for the onset of OSA: some people are born with larger tongues or tonsils, which can block the airway, or your bone structure may cause you to have a naturally small airway.
So what do you do if you suffer from sleep apnea? There are a few treatments readily available:
If you’re overweight, this is the simplest solution available; of course, losing weight is a problem millions of Americans struggle with on a daily basis. Although it may be easier said than done, shedding a few pounds really can make a huge difference to sleep apnea sufferers.
Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines are devices that continuously shoot air into a patient’s airway, via a hose that is connected to a face mask worn by the patient. CPAP machines are effective but do require the patient to stay connected to the apparatus, which some patients find uncomfortable or restricting.
Despite the fancy name, an oral appliance is really just a mouthguard you wear during sleep – it is similar in appearance to a mouthguard you might see a football player wear. There are two different kinds of oral appliances: tongue retaining devices, which hold the tongue in place during sleep, preventing it from collapsing and blocking your airway; and mandibular repositioning devices, which cause the jaw to protrude slightly, ensuring your airway stays open.
In severe cases of sleep apnea, surgery may be required. However, surgery is usually seen as a last resort option – only used once simpler, less invasive options have been explored (such as the aforementioned CPAP machines and oral appliances). There are a variety of different surgical options to treat sleep apnea, which can involve modifying the nose, jaw or throat. The most common surgery is the uvulopalatopharyngoplasty, or UPPP, which removes excess tissue from the throat or soft palate. Any possible sleep apnea surgery should be discussed fully with a healthcare professional, who can recommend the right kind of surgical procedure for you. You can also download for free our eBook below titled "Prevent the Toothache Before the Money Ache" to read about more about preventing these dental issues.