Written by Dr. Isabel Moreno-Hay, an assistant professor in the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry’s Orofacial Pain Clinic.
Unbearable snoring is often the reason sleep apnea is diagnosed. Sleep apnea occurs in about 18 million Americans, or about one in 15 people. The two types of this disorder are central and obstructive. Central sleep apnea is less common and is often associated with other conditions, like stroke. It occurs when the brain does not tell the muscles to breathe. Obstructive sleep apnea is more common, and it is caused by a repetitive (partial or complete) airway collapse which prevents air from reaching the lungs.
Sleep apnea can have negative consequences if it goes undiagnosed and untreated. It can cause chronic tiredness, which can lead to memory problems and trouble concentrating. Cardiovascular problems can also occur – the most common issue caused by sleep apnea is actually hypertension. Often times when a patient is not responding to medication for hypertension, it may be due to the disorder being undiagnosed. Additionally, the regulation of glucose levels can be negatively affected by lack of sleep, as this problem increases the risk of diabetes.
Who is most at-risk for sleep apnea?
A high Body Mass Index is the number one indicator: the higher the BMI, the greater the risk for obstructive sleep apnea. Having a large neck circumference is another indicator. Men are also at higher risk than women, except until women experience menopause, and their risk increases. Smokers are at increased risk, too. A large uvula and long soft palate, big tongue, deviated septum and enlarged tonsils can also cause the disorder.
In the 1950s, sleep behaviors started being studied and became part of medical care. In the 1970s, sleep clinics were developed so people could be monitored and diagnosed with sleep disorders. Today, sleep physicians are able to diagnose the disorder and decide on a course of treatment, which can sometimes include referral to a dentist.
The most common treatment option is a CPAP machine, a mask that patients wear to help keep the airway open with steady airflow. In other instances, oral appliances can be used to move the lower jaw forward to improve airflow. Sometimes the cause of the sleep apnea is enlarged tonsils, and one may have their tonsils surgically removed.
Additionally, behavioral modifications should accompany treatment options. For example, if a patient with sleep apnea is overweight, losing weight may help improve their condition. Quitting smoking or changing sleeping positions can also help.
Sleep is an incredibly important part of living a healthy life, and anything that gets in the way of a sound night of sleep needs to be addressed and remedied. Talk with your doctor if you think you are suffering from sleep apnea.
- Visit our website to set up an appointment at UK HealthCare’s Sleep Disorder Center.
- Go to the UK Orofacial Pain Clinic’s website for information on orofacial treatment options for sleep apnea.