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Sleep apnea

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is more than just snoring. It’s a condition where a person stops breathing involuntarily while asleep. Repeated blockage of the pharynx, whether full (apnea) or partial (hypopnea), results in a lack of oxygen in the blood, causing frequent waking. Each apnea can last from 10 seconds to more than a minute and can occur five to ten times an hour.

In Canada, it is estimated that one out of four adults suffers from a mild form of sleep apnea and that at least one out of 15 people suffers from a moderate to severe form of the disorder. After the age of 40, 24% of men and 9% of women are affected by it.

Why does the person wake up?

Every time breathing is interrupted, the brain sends a signal telling the person to wake up and start breathing. It, therefore, becomes impossible to get a good night’s sleep and properly complete all sleep cycles.

Description of the condition

When a person suffers from sleep apnea, their breathing is difficult or interrupted. There are two main causes of this disorder:

Obstruction: Obstructive sleep apnea syndrome (OSAS)

This is the most frequent form of sleep apnea. Air cannot pass through airways properly because they are collapsed or obstructed. Relaxed tongue and throat muscles block air from passing. This in turn causes soft tissue to vibrate, making the person snore. Sleeping on one’s back worsens the problem.

Neurological: Central sleep apnea (CSA)

This is a rare form of sleep apnea in which the brain fails to signal the muscles to breathe while the person sleeps.

Risk factors

  • Oversized tongue and tonsils
  • Malocclusion and narrow dental arches
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Drinking alcohol before bed
  • Some medications
  • Smoking

Effects of sleep apnea

In addition to affecting one’s ability to work and carry out daily tasks, daytime fatigue caused by a lack of sleep can increase a person’s risk of having an accident. According to the SAAQ, fatigue is the main cause of 30% to 40% of fatal accidents.

Sleep apnea is also linked to heart problems, because it causes oxygen levels in the body to decrease and carbon dioxide levels to increase. Since the heart must work harder to offset this imbalance, its health is compromised.

Signs and symptoms

At night:

  • Snoring
  • Feeling of choking
  • Restless, poor sleep
  • Frequent urges to urinate
  • Excessive sweating

During the day:

  • Excessive sleepiness and fatigue
  • Concentration and memory problems
  • Irritability and impatience
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches upon waking
  • Depression
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart problems

Possible treatments

Lifestyle changes:

  • Lose weight
  • Sleep on one’s side with the head raised
  • Avoid drinking alcohol before bed
  • Stop smoking
  • Limit the number of sleep aids taken

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP):

In more severe cases, a ventilator can help keep the upper airways open at night. The mask, worn on the face, is connected to a machine that continuously delivers air to increase blood oxygen levels.

Mouth devices:

For mild to moderate cases, a jaw-advancing device worn at night can be very effective. The best candidates for this treatment are non-smokers with a retracted jaw who are not overweight. There are two types of devices:

  1. A rigid prosthesis pushes the jaw forward, freeing up space for proper air circulation.
  2. A flexible prosthesis is better for patients with more fragile teeth. It keeps the tongue in a forward position, enabling air to pass freely.

Your dentist can recommend the best device for you.

Could you be suffering from sleep apnea?

People often don’t know they have sleep apnea until their partner mentions it. If you suspect you may be suffering from sleep apnea, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you snore?
  • Do you feel tired or dizzy when you wake up?
  • Do you feel tired during the day?
  • Are you overweight?
  • Do you sometimes fall asleep during the day when reading or in a public area (like a waiting room)?

If you’ve answered yes to some of these questions, talk to your dentist. He or she can assess your situation and greatly improve your health and quality of life!