Repeated interruption of sleep due to blocked breathing may be caused by obstructive sleep apnea, a condition associated with narrowing or obstruction of the airway. What typically occurs during a sleep apnea episode involves airway tissues collapsing into the airway or the tongue falling back over the airway. Consequently, the person experiences cessation of normal breathing and a drop in blood oxygen levels that forces them to gasp for air, snore loudly and abruptly awaken multiple times each night.
Health Issues Resulting from Untreated Sleep Apnea
Undiagnosed sleep apnea is responsible for a variety of health problems, ranging from daytime fatigue and forgetfulness to weight gain, leg edema and chronic xerostomia (dry mouth syndrome). People suffering from sleep apnea usually don’t realize they have the condition until someone else informs them of their sleep habits. Dentists and doctors may be able to diagnose sleep apnea by examining the patient’s mouth, jaw and airway for abnormalities that may interfere with breathing during sleep.
What is a CPAP?
Although a device called a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure device) machine is typically prescribed for people with OSA, some sleep apnea sufferers find the device cumbersome to wear at night, irritating to their sinuses and claustrophobic. This is because a CPAP machine consists of a an air machine and a mask that fits over the person’s nose to force air into the airway as they sleep. However, the noise of the machine and the sensation of air blowing into the nose is uncomfortable and ultimately ineffective for many OSA sufferers.
Alternatives to CPAP
Problems with airway anatomy that cause sleep apnea often involves a lower jaw that is shorter than upper jaws (retrognathia), palate abnormalities, a larger than normal neck circumference (more than 16 inches) and obesity. While examining patients suspected of suffering from sleep apnea, dentists specializing in alternative sleep apnea devices will measure tonsil and adenoid size to determine whether they may be contributing to block airflow. If applicable, dentists can fit sleep apnea patients with acrylic dental devices called “mandibular advancement devices” designed to fix incorrect lower jaw positioning or tongue retention appliances to prevent an unusually large tongue from falling over the airway during sleep.
A BiPAP (bilevel positive airway pressure) offers two different pressure levels as opposed to CPAP’s one level to help increase comfort for people who have difficulty exhaling while the machine forces air into the nose.
Positional Therapy for Mild Sleep Apnea
Positional therapy is often effective for those suffering from mild OSA and involves using products such as specially designed shirts that prevent a person from sleeping on their back and facilitating a sleep apnea episode.