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10 Signs of Sleep Apnea

An estimated 22 million Americans struggle with sleep apnea, a disorder that causes sufferers to involuntarily stop breathing while asleep. Without treatment, sleep apnea can lead to a wide range of issues, but by learning the signs and symptoms, you’ll know when to seek advice. Here’s a glimpse into sleep apnea and how your local dentist can help.

Types of Sleep Apnea

  1. Obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA, is the most common type. It occurs when your upper airway is either partially or completely blocked by overly relaxed throat muscles, forcing the muscles in your chest to work overtime to force enough air past the blockage and into your lungs. These pauses may last mere seconds, but they add up quickly, with as many as 30 pauses in just an hour of sleep. OSA appears to affect men more than women.
  2. Central sleep apnea (CSA) is a lack of respiration linked to brain function. Unlike OSA, which involves a physical blockage, CSA is typically the result of damage to the lower brain stem caused by an injury or an illness such as Parkinson’s disease.
  3. Mixed or complex sleep apnea presents as a combination of the symptoms seen in OSA and CSA. The exact cause and mechanics of mixed sleep apnea aren’t yet known, but it often starts as a physical obstruction (OSA) and then continues even after the physical blockage has been removed.

Risk Factors and Known Causes of Sleep Apnea

It’s important to understand that sleep apnea can affect anyone at any time — even children. That said, some people are at greater risk due to certain lifestyle choices, physical attributes and underlying medical conditions.

  • Individuals who are overweight are more likely to develop obstructive sleep apnea due to an excess of fat deposited around the upper airway.
  • Smoking can further weaken the muscles around your airways and lead to sleep apnea.
  • Chronic nasal congestion doesn’t necessarily cause sleep apnea, but it often shows up at the same time, possibly because both conditions can be linked to impeded airways.
  • High blood pressure is a common find in patients with sleep apnea.
  • Men are doubly at risk for developing OSA, though risk levels rise for women who are postmenopausal.
  • Other conditions that can cause breathing issues such as naturally narrow airways, enlarged adenoids and asthma all increase the risk of obstructive sleep apnea.

Common Signs and Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

Some of the signs and symptoms of sleep apnea can shift depending on which type you have, but for the most part, you’ll see some or all of the following:

1. Excessive sleepiness during the day
If you’re not getting enough sleep at night, it’s hard to feel refreshed and alert during the day. Though people with sleep apnea rarely remember waking up, all those brief pauses in breathing prevent REM sleep and may leave you feeling groggy and disoriented without knowing why.

2. Snoring
Snoring is annoying, especially for the partner or roommate who gets to bear witness to the noisy rumbling, but it can also be a sign of sleep apnea. As air fights to get past a partially blocked airway, it can rattle and cause the relaxed musculature and tissue to move, leading to snoring.

3. Gasping or choking yourself awake
As your brain registers the lack of oxygen, it prods your body into taking in air. That gasping and choking may go unnoticed, or you may react enough to startle yourself out of sleep. Even if you do wake up, you may be confused as to why you’re awake and have difficulty connecting the choking with trouble breathing.

4. Episodes of breathlessness during sleep
You may not know you stop breathing, but your partner very well might. If you have a loved one who witnesses your breathing take a long pause in the middle of the night, or if you’re seen gasping for air even when you seem fast asleep, you could have sleep apnea.

5. Dry mouth and/or sore throat
People with sleep apnea spend so much time trying to draw in air that they tend to sleep with their mouths open, leading to dry mouths and itchy, sore throats.

6. Headaches in the morning
There are lots of reasons to have a headache, including low oxygen levels and lack of sleep, both of which are also common signs and symptoms of sleep apnea.

7. Difficulty concentrating
Have you ever labored through a first-period class because you stayed up way too late watching TV the night before? People with sleep apnea often experience the same struggles with focus and concentration because of their poor quality sleep.

8. Decreased sex drive
Studies have found a link between sleep apnea and a drop in hormones like testosterone. The result can be a decrease in intimacy and libido.

9. Changes in mood
It’s hard to be in a good mood when you’re constantly exhausted, but some studies have found structural changes in the brains of people with sleep apnea. Others found shifts in the amount of two brain chemicals that help regulate emotions. That could be another explanation for crankiness in addition to good old-fashioned fatigue.

10. High blood pressure
The same two chemicals in the study above also help regulate physical functions such as sweating and blood pressure. High blood pressure is more complicated, though, because it can cause sleep apnea and be exacerbated by the frequent dips in blood oxygen levels that occur due to interrupted breathing.

What Happens If Sleep Apnea Is Left Untreated?

People who have sleep apnea may experience pauses in their breathing that last 10 seconds or even longer, depleting their blood oxygen levels and leading to a dangerous accumulation of carbon dioxide. While the brain may sometimes sense the lack of oxygen and arouse the individual enough for them to take a voluntary breath of air (a reaction so seamless and quick it’s frequently completely forgotten), the more these 10-second lapses happen, the more damage they can cause.

Left untreated, sleep apnea can prevent you from getting a good night’s rest. Without that time to rebuild and repair itself, your body will soon begin to show the effects of sleep deprivation. People who also have another disease or disorder like type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure may find that their uncontrolled sleep apnea makes symptoms even worse.

How Can Your Local Dentist Help?

Your dentist is skilled at diagnosing cavities and combating gum disease, but that’s not all. Dentists also train in the treatment of obstructive sleep apnea.

First, you need to be officially diagnosed. That requires a sleep study, which may be conducted in a center dedicated to evaluating sleep or in the comfort of your own home. Either way, the study produces a wealth of data that can help pinpoint the reason for your sleepless nights. If it is indeed sleep apnea, you’ll have the opportunity to discuss your treatment options.

One option for treating OSA is continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), a type of therapy that involves a machine that forces air through a face mask, so you get an uninterrupted flow of oxygen while you sleep. Even if you “forget” to breathe, the CPAP machine does it for you, encouraging normal oxygenation and minimizing many of the side effects of obstructive sleep apnea.

Another treatment approach is oral appliance therapy. Your dentist can help you get fitted for a device, much like a mouthguard, that you’ll wear while sleeping to help keep your airway open. Oral appliances are less cumbersome than a CPAP machine and more portable, making them preferable over the CPAP machine in many cases, but it’s up to your dentist to recommend the treatment that best suits your unique needs.

Get Help for Your Sleep Apnea

Night after night of restless sleep and rough mornings to spare can leave you feeling sad, sick and absolutely spent. With your health at risk, there’s never been a better time to get the help you need to live the happy, energetic life you deserve. If you suspect you may be suffering from sleep apnea, reach out to your local dentist and ask for an evaluation. Along with a comprehensive oral exam, you’ll get one-on-one attention and the assistance necessary to find out what’s preventing you from living life to the fullest. For dental care that’s both comfortable and compassionate, make an appointment with our talented team today.

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