Dr. Tom Northway works closely with the physicians at area sleep centers and is trained to recognize and treat sleep apnea. The information provided here is intended to increase your knowledge about the causes, symptoms, and treatments of sleep apnea. If you think you might be at risk, please contact Northway Family Dentistry today for an appointment and possible referral to a local sleep center.
Sleep isn’t just “time out” from daily life. It is an active state important for renewing our mental and physical health each day. More than 100 million Americans of all ages, however, regularly fail to get a good night’s sleep.
At least 84 disorders of sleeping and waking lead to a lowered quality of life and reduced personal health. These disorders can lead to problems falling asleep and staying asleep, difficulties staying awake or staying with a regular sleep/wake cycle, sleepwalking, bedwetting, nightmares, and other problems that interfere with sleep.
Some sleep disorders can be life-threatening.
The muscles that stiffen and open the throat tend to relax during sleep. This relaxation leads to slight narrowing of the throat that does not cause a problem for most people.
However, in people with obstructive sleep apnea, this narrowing of the breathing passage is so great that breathing becomes difficult, as if they were taking in air through a floppy, wet straw. The sleeping brain senses that breathing is difficult and increases the effort to breathe. Eventually, this increased effort awakens the brain, which signals the throat muscles to become active again and then reopens the breathing passage. With the breathing passage open once again, the effort to breathe decreases and the person goes back to sleep.
This cycle of falling asleep, throat narrowing, increased effort to breathe and then arousal from sleep tends to repeat itself throughout the night, and can disturb sleep dozens to hundreds of times each night. Most of these awakenings are so brief that they are not remembered the next morning. An individual with this pattern of obstructed breathing, brief awakenings from sleep and daytime symptoms is said to have obstructive sleep apnea.
Since the throat muscles relax during sleep to some extent in everyone, many patients with obstructive sleep apnea have additional factors that contribute to throat closure. These include a smaller-than-normal jaw, large tongue, enlarged tonsils, or tissues that partially block the entrance to the breathing passage. Obstructive sleep apnea often occurs in overweight people, as it is thought that extra fatty tissue in the neck affects the size or shape of the breathing passage. Sometimes a person has several of these contributing factors.
Since obstructive sleep apnea is less frequent in younger women, a different throat structure or certain female hormones may tend to protect them from having the disease, although in later years (and especially after menopause) the gap between the sexes narrows.
Alcohol, sleeping pills and tranquilizers taken at bedtime also relax these muscles and can make the breathing passage more likely to close. Some people with obstructive sleep apnea may sleep worse when they take a sleeping pill, or these pills can even be dangerous for them. If your health professional prescribes a sleeping pill for you, make sure that you tell him or her about any symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea you might have.
There is more than one kind of throat closure in obstructive sleep apnea. The breathing passage can narrow so much that no air can get through (apnea) or a bit less so that some air can pass (hypopneas). In some patients, the narrowing may be so slight that the body can keep breathing normally by increasing effort, but this may still cause repeated awakenings (respiratory syndrome). It is thought that all of these events lead to the same consequence: sleep disruption. Most sufferers will have a combination of the different types of abnormal breathing. In addition, airway closure may drop the level of oxygen in the blood, which can cause additional symptoms.
If you have obstructive sleep apnea, you may not get enough oxygen during sleep and probably don’t sleep soundly. You may suffer from sleepiness that affects your work and/or social activities, and that could even lead to car accidents. Obstructive sleep apnea can also put you at risk for high blood pressure, heart failure, heart attack or stroke.
If you snore loudly on most nights, contact Northway Family Dentistry for evaluation and possible referral to a sleep disorders center. Fortunately, sleep specialists are now able to diagnose and treat these breathing disorders during sleep. Proper treatment can prevent or reverse the potentially dangerous consequences of obstructive sleep apnea.
The above information is provided by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine’s wellness booklet, “Obstructive Sleep Apnea & Snoring,” copyright 2007.<<back to Sleep Apnea main page