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Sleep Apnea / Snoring 101

Sleep apnea: The danger of not sleeping well

There is no doubt that snoring is a nuisance for you and for your partner. It can drive couples to fight and may even lead them to sleeping apart. However, for some people snoring is more than just a nuisance. It is a sign of a dangerous, potentially deadly condition, known as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).

image-sleep-apneaOSA is a disorder that disrupts your sleep, preventing you from getting the restful sleep your body and brain need to recharge properly. OSA can lead to serious mental and physical health problems, such as:

  • cardiovascular disease
  • stroke
  • relationship problems
  • weight gain
  • depression
  • safety risks

What is sleep apnea?

OSA is a physical condition that causes your breathing to stop momentarily while you sleep. During these episodes of interrupted breathing, described as apneic events, your blood oxygen level drops. This drop in blood oxygen level causes your brain to awaken and resume your breathing.

Although you most likely are not conscious of these episodes and may not remember them in the morning, they disrupt your sleep. Being continually awakened from your sleep can hinder your body’s ability to reach and remain in the deeper stages of sleep that are crucial to your physical and mental rejuvenation.

What causes sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is divided into two types: central and obstructive.

  • Central sleep apnea occurs due to a neurological condition: your brain stops telling your lungs to breathe
  • Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles that hold the airways open relax, leading to the collapse of the airways

OSA is a very common condition. In fact, about 2 million Canadians suffer from this form of sleep apnea. Although most people who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea are overweight men in their 50s or older, it can affect anyone.

OSA can also be associated with TMJ. Because the tissues of the airway hang on the jaw for support when the muscles relax, a poorly aligned jaw can increase the chances of your airway becoming obstructed during sleep.

Symptoms of OSA

Snoring is one of the most common signs of OSA. Before the airway constricts completely, it narrows, leading to turbulent airflow and vibration of the soft tissues, which creates snoring. About 30 % of snorers have OSA, and nearly three-quarters of OAS sufferers are also snorers.

Most often, the snoring of an OSA sufferer will be interrupted and punctuated with gasping or choking, but there are many other symptoms of sleep apnea:
• Daytime sleepiness
• Waking with a headache or a feeling that you got no rest
• Lack of concentrating or sudden memory problems
• Inexplicable weight gain or difficulty losing weight despite dieting and exercise
• Sudden depression, irritability, and mood swings
• Diagnosis of medical conditions associated with sleep apnea, like high blood pressure and diabetes

Is there a sleep apnea solution?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for sleep apnea. Don’t stop reading, though! There are effective sleep apnea and snoring treatments.

This first step in conquering your sleep apnea is a medical assessment. This is often a test with a sleep doctor or specialist that is initiated by your medical doctor. Part of your assessment will be a determination of the severity of your sleep apnea. This is based on  how often your apneas occur and how low your blood oxygen level goes. Here is an example of sleep apnea severity from Health Services Alberta:

OSA Severity Apneas / hour  
 Normal  Less than 5 / hour
  Mild    5 to 15 / hour
 Moderate   15 to 30 / hour
 Severe  Over 30 / hour

Once it’s been determined you do have OSA, there are treatments to help you sleep better. A traditional and very effective sleep apnea treatment is called Continuous Positive Airway Pressure or CPAP. Essentially, CPAP is a machine that streams oxygen into your airways to keep them from collapsing during sleep. Unfortunately, some sleep apnea or snoring patients find CPAP therapy difficult to tolerate due to its noise, restriction and discomfort.

Dental treatment can be an option for patients with mild to moderate sleep apnea or for those who can’t tolerate CPAP.  Also known as orthotics or splints, oral appliances are dental devices designed to keep your tongue or jaw in the optimal position to relieve or improve sleep disordered breathing and snoring.

According to the Canadian Sleep Society, oral appliances can offer an effective, first-line treatment option for patients with mild to moderate sleep apnea who prefer an oral appliance over CPAP, or for those who have severe sleep apnea and cannot tolerate a CPAP machine. If you are interested in learning more about oral appliances and if they could be an effective treatment for your sleep apnea or snoring, talk to your doctor. 

Get back to healthy sleep

Deep restful sleep is a critical component of a healthy life. If you snore, can’t sleep, are always tired or suffer from any of the symptoms noted above, we recommend you seek help. The first step is a visit to your medical doctor. If, after a sleep study, OSA is your diagnosis, take heart in the fact that effective sleep apnea and snoring treatment is possible and can help you get the sleep you need.

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