Sleep Apnea and Snoring

We all know someone who snores right? A little snoring isn’t usually any cause for alarm, but if you spend your nights curled up against someone who snores can make your whole house shake, then chances are you aren’t getting very much sleep! People who snore heavily are also at risk of a much more serious condition – sleep apnea.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is becoming increasingly common, thanks in part to the growing rise in obesity we have seen during the last decade. It is often seen in heavy snorers, although not everyone who snore will develop it.

A person who has sleep apnea will experience a disruption in their regular breathing during their sleep. It often sounds like the person is holding their breath, and it can be very disconcerting for anyone in the same room as the sufferer.

There are two types of sleep apnea:

Obstructive sleep apnea: this is the most common form and is caused by blocked airflow, usually as a result of the soft tissue at the back of the throat collapsing while you sleep. The main symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea, aside from the disrupted breathing during sleep, are:

  • Fatigue

  • Unintentionally falling asleep during the day

  • Insomnia

  • Waking from sleep gasping for breath

Central sleep apnea: this is caused by a communication problem between the brain and the muscles that we use to breath, rather than by a physical blockage. This type of sleep apnea occurs most often in people who have certain conditions such as brain damage, brain tumors, stroke and heart failure.

At risk groups

Although sleep apnea can affect anyone at any time, there are certain groups of people who are more at risk. These include:

  • Men

  • Over 40s

  • Some ethnic minorities

  • Smokers

  • People with enlarged neck sizes

  • Overweight or obese individuals

  • Those with enlarged tonsils, a very large tongue or a disproportionately small jaw

  • Anyone with a family history of sleep apnea

  • Those with nasal or sinus problems including damaged septum, recurring sinus infections and even allergies

Health problems associated with sleep apnea

If left untreated, sleep apnea can result in a number of different health problems including:

  • Diabetes

  • Depression

  • High blood pressure

  • Heart failure

  • Heart attack

  • Stroke

Surely this is a medical problem? What can my dentist do to help?

There are medical solutions to sleep apnea. These include a CPAP (continuous positive air pressure) machine which uses air pressure to keep the airway open while sleeping, and surgery to remove the tonsils or other parts of the soft palate obstructing the airway.

However, dental appliance therapy has also shown to be successful in dealing with patients with sleep apnea. There are a range of makes and models of appliances, but the majority of them have a common goal – to keep the lower jaw pushed forward in order to ensure that the airway is left unobstructed. They usually come in the form of mouth guards which are relatively discreet and often more comfortable to wear than CPAP machines (which involve wearing a large mask attached to a machine, giving you very little room to move!). They are also portable meaning that they are a far better solution if you travel around frequently.

Dental management of sleep apnea

If dental appliance therapy is something you would like to consider for your sleep apnea, then you should speak to Dr. Barotz about making an appointment with a dentist that has a recognized speciality in dealing with sleep related problems. This will usually happen only after your doctor has referred you for a sleep study whereby the underlying cause of your specific sleep apnea is identified.

During your initial consultation with your dentist, a full medical and dental history will be taken and you will have a thorough examination of your teeth and mouth. Impressions of your upper and lower teeth will be taken, as well as a note of your jaw position and possibly some x-rays. These will be used to create your custom dental appliance.

Once your appliance is ready you will be shown how to use it, and then referred back for another sleep study so that the effectiveness of the device can be checked. If adjustments are required, your dentist will make these until the sleep apnea is controlled and you are comfortable with the appliance.

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