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Sleep apnea is a condition that occurs when a patient’s breathing is periodically disrupted during sleep. If left untreated, this serious condition can cause you to stop breathing repeatedly while sleeping, disrupting oxygen flow to the brain and the rest of the body.

Individuals with sleep apnea have a higher risk of developing heart problems, high blood pressure, liver problems, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and other serious conditions.

If you suspect that you might be suffering from sleep apnea, or know you have sleep apnea and are looking for treatment, please make an appointment with your dentist.

Sleep Apnea Symptoms

In addition to interrupted breathing while sleeping, which you likely won’t know is happening unless someone tells you, other symptoms of sleep apnea may include:

  • Gasping for air while sleeping
  • Snoring loudly
  • Difficulty staying asleep (insomnia)
  • Excessive daytime drowsiness (hypersomnia)
  • Waking up with a dry mouth
  • Irritability
  • Trouble focusing

What Causes Sleep Apnea?

There are three main types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea, and a combination of both types referred to as complex sleep apnea syndrome.

This form of sleep apnea is the most common and occurs when the muscles in the back of your throat relax during sleep. These muscles are responsible for supporting your soft palate, your uvula, your tongue, your tonsils, and the sidewalls of your throat.

When your throat muscles relax, your airway becomes narrower or even closes completely. This restricts or disrupts the flow of oxygen, lowering your blood oxygen levels.

When the brain senses that you’re no longer breathing, it wakes you up briefly to reopen your airway. This awakening is so brief that most sleep apnea patients don’t even remember it happening.

When you briefly awaken, you may choke, gasp, or snort, and your body may wake you up as often as thirty times per hour. When you are constantly being awakened, it disrupts your sleep patterns and prevents you from getting the deep, restful sleep you require.

Central sleep apnea is less common than obstructive sleep apnea. This type of sleep apnea occurs when communications between your brain and your breathing muscles breaks down, causing your body to discontinue breathing efforts for short periods of time. Many patients with central sleep apnea often awaken breathless or find that they have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.

Sleep Apnea Risk Factors

There are several factors that increase your risk of developing either obstructive sleep apnea or central sleep apnea.

Obstructive sleep apnea risk factors include:

  • Having a narrow airway. Genetic factors may have given you a narrow airway, or your tonsils or adenoids may be enlarged, narrowing your airway. This risk factor is most often found in children.
  • Your neck circumference. Individuals with thick necks are more likely to have narrow airways.
  • Excessive weight. Being overweight or obese increases your chances of developing sleep apnea because the excess weight around your neck may obstruct your upper airway, disrupting your breathing.
  • Smoking. Smoking is responsible for a wide variety of health problems and can affect your ability to breathe properly. It also increases your risk of developing sleep apnea. Smokers are nearly three times more likely to develop obstructive sleep apnea than individuals who have never smoked. Smoking can cause your upper airway to retain fluid, causing inflammation and restricting the amount of oxygen you take in with each breath.
  • Nasal congestion. Individuals who have trouble breathing through their noses, either due to the shape of their nose or allergies, are more likely to develop obstructive sleep apnea.
  • Your age. Older adults are more likely to develop sleep apnea than younger adults.
  • Your sex. Men are more likely to develop sleep apnea than women, though a woman’s chances increase if she is overweight or has reached menopause.
  • Your family history. Having a family history of sleep apnea may increase your chances of developing the condition yourself.

Central sleep apnea risk factors include:

  • Your age. Middle-aged and elderly individuals are more likely to develop central sleep apnea than children or young adults.
  • Your sex. Central sleep apnea occurs more frequently in men than in women.
  • Having a stroke. Having a stroke increases your chances of developing central sleep apnea.
  • Having a heart disorder. Congestive heart failure increases your chances of developing central sleep apnea.
  • Using narcotic pain medication. Opioid medications, especially long-acting medications such as methadone, increases your chances of developing central sleep apnea.

Managing Your Sleep Apnea

Though there is currently no cure for either obstructive sleep apnea or central sleep apnea, these conditions can be managed effectively, freeing you from symptoms. Depending on your unique needs, and the cause of your sleep apnea, your dentist may suggest using a snore guard or sleep apnea appliance (such as a CPAP machine) while sleeping.

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