Sleep apnea: The consequences of not sleeping well
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a disorder that prevents you from getting the rest your body and brain need to recharge properly.
Obstructive sleep apnea has been linked to:
- high blood pressure
- heart attack
- cardiovascular disease
- cognitive impairment
- sexual dysfunction
- obesity or weight gain
- injuries due to excessive daytime sleepiness
In children, sleep apnea can cause:
- failure to thrive
- attention issues
- behavioral problems
- poor academic performance
What is OSA?
The term apnea is a Greek word meaning to stop or suspend breathing. With obstructive sleep apnea, your airway is blocked as your tongue, soft palate, and throat tissues over-relax and collapse onto the back of your throat.
People who suffer from OSA experience short pauses in their breathing, dozens to hundreds of times a night. When the oxygen stops flowing, the brain briefly awakes to resume breathing. These constant, brief awakenings keep you from falling into the deep, restorative stage of sleep.
What causes sleep apnea?
OSA is a fairly common condition in Canada. In fact, about 2 million Canadians suffer from OSA. While the majority of people afflicted with obstructive sleep apnea are men in their 50s or older, and carrying excess weight, it can affect anyone, even children.
You are at a higher risk for sleep apnea if you:
- are overweight
- are over age 40
- have a large neck size (17 inches or bigger in men and 16 inches or bigger in women)
- have large tonsils, a large tongue, or a small jaw
- have a family history of sleep apnea
- suffer from gastroesophageal reflux, or GERD
- have a nasal obstruction such as a deviated septum, allergies, or sinus problems
OSA is also associated with TMJ. Because your throat tissues relay on your jaw for support when your jaw muscles relax, a mis-aligned bite can increase the likelihood that your airway may become obstructed while you sleep.
The symptoms are sometimes your only clue
Many people are unaware they suffer from sleep apnea because it occurs while they are asleep. Unless you have a bed partner who’s observed it, you may have no idea you have a night-time breathing problem.
Here are some symptoms to watch for:
- daytime fatigue
- gasping, choking, or long pauses in breathing while you sleep
- frequent awakening or restless sleep
- difficulty concentrating during the day
- morning headaches
- TMJ symptoms
The problem with CPAP
CPAP, or continuous positive airway pressure is an effective treatment for sleep apnea. It works by propelling a steady stream of air into your lungs to keep your throat open while you sleep. It’s safe, and it has a high success rate for patients who are able to stick with it, but it’s not always the right solution. Why?
CPAP treatment requires that your wear a mask while you sleep. It also consists of a machine that sits near your bed. Some patients find the mask uncomfortable and difficult to get a good fit, and the machine noisy. It can also cause dryness of the nasal passages and throat. Because of these discomforts, many people abandon the treatment.
Get back to healthy sleep
There are some things you can do on your own to combat sleep apnea.
- If you are overweight, try shedding some pounds. This will help reduce excess throat tissues that may be contributing to the condition.
- Make sure you don’t hit the sack exhausted. Going to bed overtired can cause you to sleep so deeply your throat muscles over-relax and block your airway.
- Quit smoking
- Get regular exercise
- Avoid alcohol, caffeine and heavy meals near bedtime
While all of these actions can help, and contribute to better overall health, many people with sleep apnea need some extra help. As noted above, CPAP is an effective treatment, but there are alternatives if you have found CPAP intolerable. Oral appliances custom fit by a dentist can help keep your jaw in a better position so that your airways remain open.
If TMJ is at the root of your sleep apnea, dental treatment options for TMJ may also help you get back to restorative sleep.