Sleep apnea is a potentially life-threatening sleep disorder that is characterized by longer than normal pauses while breathing during sleep. The term “sleep apnea” is derived from the Greek etymology meaning “without breath”. Breathing pauses can last anywhere from several seconds to several minutes, and can happen as often as 30 times or more per hour. Ongoing disrupted breathing causes imbalances between the carbon dioxide and oxygen levels in the bloodstream, as not enough carbon dioxide is exiting, and not enough oxygen is entering the body.
Sensing this imbalance, the brain sends a message to the body telling it to wake up and restart the breathing process. Sometimes, people with sleep apnea will partially awaken as they struggle to breathe, which is often accompanied by loud snoring or choking sensations. However, some people don’t always completely awaken during episodes, which means they are often unaware that they have a sleeping disorder, and it can remain undiagnosed.
There are two main types of this disorder; central sleep apnea, which occurs when the brain fails to send important signals to the breathing muscles, and obstructive sleep apnea which occurs when air cannot freely flow through the nose or mouth even though the body is still trying to breathe. Obstructive sleep apnea is far more prevalent, and easily treatable by the dentist.
Common signs of obstructive sleep apnea can include severe early morning headaches, sleepiness in the daytime, and insomnia. Fortunately, the dentist is equipped with the necessary technology and expertise to treat sleep apnea in several different ways.
Reason for treating sleep apnea
It is very important to seek medical attention if sleep apnea is suspected. A sufferer can completely stop breathing numerous times per hour, and this can quickly turn into a deadly situation. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the soft tissue lying at the back of the patient’s throat collapses into the airway. The tongue then falls towards the back of the throat, which tightens the blockage and prevents oxygen from entering the lungs.
The problem worsens when the chest region, diaphragm, and abdomen fight for air. The efforts they make to obtain vital oxygen only cause a further tightening of the blockage. The patient must awaken from a deep sleep to tense the tongue, and remove the soft tissue from the airway.
Because sleep apnea causes carbon dioxide levels to skyrocket, and oxygen levels to decrease in the bloodstream, the heart has to pump that much harder and faster to compensate for the lack of oxygen. Sleep apnea has been linked to a series of serious heart-related conditions, and should be investigated by the dentist at the earliest opportunity.
What does sleep apnea treatment involve?
Initially, the dentist will want to conduct tests in order to investigate, diagnose, and pinpoint a suitable treatment. The dentist can offer many different treatment options which will depend largely on the exact diagnosis, and the overall health of the patient. The dentist may advise the patient to halt some habits that aggravate sleep apnea such as smoking, alcohol consumption, and medications.
Sleeping masks were traditionally used to keep the patient’s airways open while they slept, but nowadays there are some less intrusive options. Now, there are dental devices that gently tease the lower jaw forward, preventing the tongue from blocking the main airway passage. These dental devices are gentle, easy to wear, and often help patients avoid unwanted surgeries.