Sleep Apnea Education (What is Sleep Apnea)

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Obstructive sleep apnea is more than just a disturbance in your sleep; it’s a health concern that needs your urgent attention. With this guide, our goal is to provide you with clear information about why it is happening to you and how you can get it treated for good.

What is Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)?

OSA is a sleep disorder where your breathing stops and starts many times while you are asleep. Each pause in breathing can last between 10 and 30 seconds. This seemingly minor disruption actually causes you to wake up over and over again during the night. It might not be something you remember in the morning, but it eventually takes a toll on the quality of your sleep.

The impact of OSA goes beyond just feeling tired. If you don’t get it treated, it can increase the risk of having a heart attack, experiencing respiratory failure (where your lungs fail to provide enough oxygen to your body), developing high blood pressure, feeling depressed, and going so far as shortening your lifespan.

What Causes Sleep Apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when a blockage stops air from flowing into your lungs while you sleep. This happens when you try to breathe in, but the air cannot get through.

One common cause is your tongue falling back into your throat while you sleep, which blocks the air passage. Another reason could be excess fatty tissue in the neck or throat area, which narrows the respiratory tract. Sometimes, it’s because of enlarged tonsils or an enlarged uvula – that’s the small piece of tissue you can see hanging down at the back of your throat. All these factors can prevent air from moving freely into your lungs, leading to the breathing pauses characteristic of sleep apnea.

How Do I Tell If I Have Sleep Apnea?

It’s not always easy to recognize it, especially because it happens when you are asleep. But it is possible that someone else might notice them before you do. Your bed partner might tell you that you snore loudly or that there are long breaks in your breathing while you sleep.

Here are some other indicators you can look out for:

  • Thunderous snoring: While not everyone who snores has sleep apnea, loud and persistent snoring is a common sign, especially if it’s accompanied by silent pauses and then gasps or choking sounds.
  • Feeling tired during the day: If you get enough sleep at night but still feel tired or sleepy during the day, it could be a sign of OSA. Your sleep might get interrupted throughout the night, even if you don’t fully wake up.
  • Waking up with a dry mouth or sore throat: People with sleep apnea typically breathe through their mouth while sleeping, which is another common symptom.
  • Morning headaches: Lack of oxygen and disrupted sleep can lead to headaches when you wake up.
  • Difficulty concentrating: If you find it hard to focus during the day and it is not related to other factors like stress or diet, it could be due to disrupted sleep from sleep apnea.
  • Mood changes: Feeling irritable, depressed, or experiencing mood swings can also be a symptom linked to poor sleep quality.
  • Waking up suddenly and feeling short of breath: If it happens regularly, it is likely OSA.
  • High blood pressure: Some people with untreated sleep apnea tend to have a raised blood pressure.

Remember, having just one or two of these symptoms does not necessarily mean you have sleep apnea. It’s more a combination of these symptoms, especially the earsplitting snoring, breaks in breathing, and daytime fatigue, that could point towards it. The best way to know for sure is to talk to a doctor.

What Lifestyle Changes Can I Make to Help Treat My Sleep Apnea?

Treatment starts with making some important changes in your daily life. Our sleep medicine dentists at Sleep Treatment Direct recommend the following adjustments you can try at home:

  • If you carry extra weight, losing some of it can help. Excess weight, especially around the neck, can pressure your airway and worsen OSA.
  • Regular physical activity can help improve sleep apnea. You don’t need to do intense workouts; a daily walk can make a difference.
  • Some people find that their sleep apnea worsens when they sleep on their back, so try sleeping on your side. You can use special pillows or even a tennis ball sewn into the back of your pajamas to keep you from rolling onto your back.
  • Try to avoid alcohol and certain sedative medications as much as possible; they relax the muscles in your throat, which can interrupt breathing. 
  • Quit smoking as it can increase inflammation and fluid retention in your throat.
  • Establish a regular sleep schedule, make sure your bedroom is comfortable and free from distractions, and avoid caffeine and heavy meals before bedtime.
  • Dry air can irritate the respiratory system, so use a humidifier where you sleep.
  • Drinking enough water can help prevent a dry mouth and throat that comes with OSA.

Please note that these are general tips and might not work for everyone. If your sleep apnea is severe, these changes alone will not be enough, and you might need other treatments like oral appliances.

How Can a Dentist Help with My Sleep Apnea?

Dentists have specialized knowledge about your mouth, jaw, and airway structure. This is why primary care physicians refer you to a dentist if you want an oral appliance to address a sleep-related disorder.

Dr. Gene Steele DDS, FAGD, specializes in oral appliance therapy to treat the root cause of obstructive sleep apnea. Based on your consultation, he can fit you with a mandibular advancement device – it looks like a mouthguard or an orthodontic retainer – which you wear in your mouth while you sleep. It will slowly reposition your lower jaw and tongue slightly forward to keep your airway open when you are asleep. As the interruptions in your breathing are minimized, you will see a major improvement in how you sleep and feel almost immediately.

Over time, Dr. Steele will adjust the device as needed (during your follow-up appointments) to ensure it remains comfortable to wear at night. His staff will also monitor its impact on your sleep apnea symptoms and check for any side effects, like changes in your bite or jaw discomfort.

What is a Home Sleep Study?

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms we listed before, we suggest booking an appointment with us to see if a home sleep test should be your next step.

It’s done in your own bed, making it more convenient than a sleep lab study. Home tests are particularly beneficial if you have trouble sleeping in unfamiliar environments or have health or mobility issues that make it difficult to stay overnight at a sleep clinic.

We will provide you with a small kit with the testing equipment. This includes a finger clip that measures your oxygen levels and heart rate, a nasal cannula (a flexible tube) to measure airflow, and sometimes belts that go around your chest and abdomen to measure breathing effort. You can easily set it up on your own.

All you need to do is get in your bed like you do every night and wear it. It will gather all the necessary data we need to diagnose whether you have sleep apnea and if you do, exactly what type of sleep apnea you have and how serious it is. Our treatment recommendations will be based on this analysis.

If we suspect a more severe condition or your home-based study results are inconclusive, we might refer you to an in-lab sleep study near you for a more comprehensive evaluation.

Is Sleep Apnea Treatment Covered by the Insurance?

Most medical insurance plans cover sleep apnea treatments like CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machines and oral appliance therapy. Dental plans don’t cover it because sleep apnea is a medical condition rather than a dental issue.

If you are considering oral appliance therapy, do note that most health plans will not cover it if it is solely intended for snoring, as it may not be deemed “medically necessary.” Please check with your insurance provider or get in touch with us at (239) 256-3463 to learn whether you have coverage.