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Obstructive sleep apnea is a nighttime disorder that is frequently misunderstood, widely misdiagnosed — and potentially extremely serious.
We tend to think of snoring, one of the telltale signs of sleep apnea, as a quaint and somewhat amusing characteristic. We may even tease a spouse or older relative about it. But when we understand that this sleep disorder involves recurring interruptions of breathing throughout the night, and a resulting dip in oxygen for our body, the subject becomes more sobering.
Respiratory Risk of Sleep Apnea
This break in normal breathing during sleep typically lasts at least 10 seconds. The physiological cause is a failure of the throat muscles to maintain an open airway. Sleep apnea has been linked to an array of diseases and conditions, including congestive heart failure, cardiac arrhythmia, stroke, high blood pressure, problems with memory, sexual dysfunction, depression, irritability and chronic fatigue.
Sometimes the cause of sleep apnea is genetic: Snoring is more prevalent among some families and ethnic groups. In addition, if you inherited a small upper airway, recessed chin, extensive overbite or large tongue, neck or tonsils, you are more likely to suffer from the condition. Yet sleep apnea is also strongly correlated with certain lifestyle habits, such as overeating that leads to obesity.
Measuring the Severity of Your Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea is easy to ignore, because we never consciously observe our own symptoms. But if you’ve been told by family or friends that you snore loudly and often, and even periodically choke or stop breathing, it is important you have your sleep evaluated by a professional. The experienced Chicago dentists of Contos Smile Center will assist you in receiving a precise diagnosis, and later can provide you with effective treatment options.
Sleep apnea is commonly diagnosed after an overnight observation at a sleep center. This comprehensive sleep study evaluates the various states of sleep during the night, heart rate, breathing, eye movement, muscle activity and the amount of oxygen in the blood. Just as important as diagnosing sleep apnea is determining how severe the condition may be.
CPAP Regulates Breathing
A commonly prescribed treatment option is a CPAP machine that helps regulate breathing at night. This “continuous positive airway pressure” unit includes a mask that fits over the nose and mouth and creates a gentle stream of air to support normal breathing. Although the CPAP solution is highly effective, many sufferers do not want to set up this type of equipment in the bedroom, or eventually lose interest in using it consistently.
Available Sleep Apnea Treatments
In these cases other options can be tried, including a dental appliance that holds the jaw and tongue in a position that promotes normal breathing, or a disposable valve known as a nasal expiratory positive airway pressure device that covers the nostrils. More invasive treatments include upper airway surgery and the surgical implantation in the chest of a device that monitors breathing and, when necessary, stimulates the hypoglossal nerve, which governs tongue movement.
As with many acute or chronic conditions, it is prudent to start with a conservative approach, especially modification of lifestyle habits. For obese patients, losing significant weight can actually cure sleep apnea. Quitting smoking and limiting alcohol consumption are also important, as both habits interfere with proper functioning of the upper airway. Smoking swells this breathing passage and alcohol relaxes its muscles. Sometimes even trying a different sleep position can mitigate the problem, especially for mild cases.
For more information on sleep apnea or to schedule an appointment in our Chicago office, call (773) 973-0531 or email Contos Smile Center today.
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