If your sleeping partner has mentioned that you snore loudly, often waking with loud gasping or choking noises, you may be living with obstructive sleep apnea. This potentially life-threatening sleep disorder affects over 10 million people in the U.S. alone and can dramatically increase your risk of suffering from high blood pressure, heart disease, and strokes. In addition to very loud snoring that worsens when you sleep on your back, other common symptoms of sleep apnea include:
Obstructive sleep apnea can significantly reduce your quality of life and your overall health. You may be surprised to learn that your Katy dentist, Dr. Colin Lathrop, can provide you with a simple mouthpiece, often referred to as a mandibular repositioning device, or MRA, that can help you breathe freely throughout the night and finally receive truly restful sleep.
Preventive dentistry is, at its core, any practice that addresses health problems of the oral structures, including the teeth, gums, jaw, and throat. Because sleep apnea and snoring are caused by the soft tissues of the throat, treating these problems fall within the purview of a general dentist. In fact, dentists are the only healthcare professionals who can prescribe an oral appliance for snoring and sleep apnea. These comfortable appliances resemble a mouthguard. Custom-fitted to the dimensions of your mouth, they reposition the lower jaw so that the airway remains unobstructed during sleep. A dentist cannot diagnose sleep apnea; a diagnosis must be made by a medical doctor after a formal sleep study. However, once a diagnosis is made, oral appliances provide an much more comfortable and convenient alternative to bulky CPAP machines.
The primary difference between regular snoring and obstructive sleep apnea can be found in the way the tissues of the throat function while a person sleeps. When you’re awake, the muscles of the throat become taut in order to hold the air passage open. When you fall asleep, the muscles of the throat relax. In a snorer, the soft tissues of the throat or even the tongue partially block the air passage; as air flows past the tissues, it creates the characteristic vibrating sound we call snoring. Although snoring can be extremely loud, it isn’t the same as sleep apnea and it doesn’t carry the same potential for serious health problems.
In a person with sleep apnea, the soft tissues completely block the airway and the person stops breathing. When a sleep apnea sufferer stops breathing, their blood oxygen level plummets. The brain senses the loss of oxygen and goes into panic mode, forcing the body to awaken so that breathing can recommence. These sudden bouts of wakefulness are punctuated by loud choking, gasping, or snorting sounds. Because the person with sleep apnea wakes up frequently during the night, they never enter REM sleep, that deep level of sleep wherein the body truly repairs itself. As a result, a person may lay in bed “asleep” for a full eight hours, but still wake up in the morning feeling groggy, fatigued, and irritable.