What is sleep apnea?
Many people think sleep apnea is just snoring, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Sleep apnea is a very serious disorder that is proven by medical studies to shorten the life span. An apnea is a pause in breathing. That means it causes decreased oxygen intake and deprives the body of this vital substance. People with sleep apnea are suffocating!
Obstructive sleep apnea is caused by an airway that collapses when someone lies flat. The area between the back of the tongue and the back of the throat caves in. This blocks air from entering the windpipe, and that is why they call it “obstructive” sleep apnea. When that happens, people are unable to breath. However, it takes a little while for the body to realize this because he or she is sleeping. The oxygen in the blood falls, and the carbon dioxide in the blood stream increases until it gets to a dangerous level. At that point, the brain finally recognizes that the body desperately needs to take a breath. That’s when the characteristic, loud snore happens. The snore is the brain waking up the body enough to take a very deep breath.
What’s the problem with sleep apnea?
Typically, the people who have this problem don’t know anything is wrong for a long time. Sleep apnea worsens slowly and people may not notice the change until it is already severe. However, the consequences of sleep apnea can be very damaging. The main issues with sleep apnea are primarily related to terrible sleep patterns and the chronically decreased oxygen levels.
Poor sleep can be very harmful to a person’s emotional and physical well-being. People get very run down and low on energy. It becomes very difficult to get through a work day and care for a family. At the same time, it is incredibly frustrating to try to sleep, but to continue to wake up tired. In addition, it may cause problems with interpersonal relationships including causing poor sleep for bed partners.
The other problem with sleep apnea is the low oxygen levels. This has very harsh effects on the tissues in the body. Sleep apnea has been correlated with high blood pressure, a risk of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. All of these things can take years off your life. This problem needs to be addressed as soon as possible to maximize quality and length of life.
What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?
Your doctor will ask a number of questions when trying to figure out if someone has sleep apnea. The first symptom is usually the loud snoring, and it is a characteristic pattern. Bed partners may describe a long period of silence followed by a large gasp and several snores in a row. This is the typical description of an apnea. This will repeat many, many times throughout the night. A person with sleep apnea may wake up in excess of 10, 20, or 30 times in one night. It’s easy to see that a person who wakes up this much is not sleeping very well.
The doctor will also ask about daytime sleepiness. They will generally ask if someone’s urge to dose off doing routine daily activities, such as watching television, reading, sitting in a public place, riding in a car, or sitting down after lunch. Using these questions, they can determine the severity of daytime sleepiness. People with obstructive sleep apnea are very sleepy during the daytime.
How is sleep apnea diagnosed?
If the doctor has a high suspicion of obstructive sleep apnea, they will arrange a sleep study. Usually, sleep studies are done at offices where they have a bed and specialized equipment. The trained personnel will hook up electrodes to the head and other sensors to measure oxygen levels. They are then able to monitor sleep patterns throughout the night. They can tell how long it takes to get to sleep, when someone is dreaming, how often they wake up, and how low their oxygen levels get. Using all this information, they can calculate the severity of obstructive sleep apnea.
How is sleep apnea treated?
Sleep apnea can be treated in many ways. The most common treatment is using a small appliance called a CPAP machine. This machine blows air through a mask into a person’s mouth. The air pressure can be adjusted up and down until it holds the back of the throat open just enough to let the person breath. You may think that this machine, with its mechanical noise and wind in the face, would keep a person awake, but people find that it doesn’t bother them because they are so exhausted from the obstructive sleep apnea. This treatment can be very effective, but it can be inconvenient when travelling. Also, it is not a permanent fix. If someone stops using the machine, then the sleep apnea returns.
Other methods of treatment include things as simple as trying to sleep on one side or the other. This can have some positive effect. Another alternative is a dental appliance that holds the jaw forward and opens the back of the throat. This can work, too, but it is often less effective than a CPAP machine.
Finally, there are surgical treatments of obstructive sleep apnea. These are the most permanent of all solutions. Many people who try other treatment methods are unsatisfied with those results. That’s why more people are finding their way to a surgeon’s office. Depending on your specific situation, the surgery may directly open the back of the throat. This surgery is called an uvulo-palato-pharyngo-plasty (UPPP). In some more complex cases, the surgeon may perform a jaw surgery that is aimed at shifting the jaw forward to open the back of the throat. Once surgery is done, there is no need for a CPAP machine or a dental appliance.
Whichever method of treatment you choose, it is very important to address obstructive sleep apnea as soon as possible. The complications can have a very negative affect on your health, and they are all completely avoidable with treatment. If surgery sounds like it may be a good option for you, contact Dr. Jamali at Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery of New York in lower Manhattan. Call 212-480-2777 today for an evaluation!