Sleep Apnea
Snoring has always been associated as more of an annoyance rather than a medical concern for most people. However, frequent and loud snoring can be a sign of a disorder called sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a disorder in which breathing stops periodically throughout sleep. Sleep apnea is treatable, but can easily go without being identified or diagnosed. In this article, we discuss symptoms, causes, and treatment of sleep apnea.
What is sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea is a breathing disorder in which breathing periodically pauses for about 10-20 seconds throughout the night and can occur hundreds of times while you sleep. This irregular breathing pattern interrupts your natural sleeping pattern, even if you do not fully “wake up” from the breathing pauses. This causes you to spend more time in a lighter stage of sleep and less time in the deeper stages of sleep such as REM sleep, depriving you of energy and mental acuity. This chronic deep sleep deprivation can cause daytime sleepiness, slowed reflexes and poor concentration. Over time, sleep apnea can cause serious health issues including heart disease, heart attacks, stroke, weight gain, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
There are three main types of sleep apnea: obstructive, central, and complex. Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type, and occurs when the tissues in the back of your throat relax as you sleep and block the airway. This usually causes loud snoring. Central sleep apnea is much less common and involves the central nervous system. Central sleep apnea occurs when the brain fails to send signals to the respiratory muscles that control breathing and so breathing ceases until other systems notice a decrease in oxygen. People with central sleep apnea do not usually snore, but have longer periods in which they are completely silent and breathing does not occur. Complex sleep apnea is a combination of both obstructive and central sleep apneas.
Sleep apnea symptoms
It is relatively difficult to identify sleep apnea alone, since the most prominent symptoms occur during sleep. A solution is to record yourself during sleep, ask a bed partner to monitor your sleep, or participate in a sleep study at a local hospital. The major symptoms of sleep apnea are as follows:
  • Pausing when snoring followed by choking or gasping after the pauses
  • Consistent sleepiness throughout the day
  • Headaches or dry mouth upon waking up
  • Inability to concentrate, including learning and memory issues
  • Waking up frequently to urinate
  • Mood swings, irritability, or depression
Not everyone who snores has sleep apnea, and not everyone who has sleep apnea snores during the night. The biggest sign to test if you have sleep apnea or you just snore is how you feel throughout the day. Normal snoring should not interfere with sleeping patterns, so you shouldn’t feel exhausted during the daytime.
Sleep apnea causes and risk factors
Any person can have sleep apnea, but there are certain risk factors that are associated with sleep apnea that put people at a higher risk. You have a higher risk for obstructive sleep apnea if you are:
  • Overweight
  • Male
  • Over 65 years old
  • A smoker
  • Related to someone with sleep apnea
You have a higher risk for central sleep apnea if you are:
  • Male
  • Over 65 years old
Central sleep apnea is often associated with serious illness such as heart disease, stroke, neurological disorder or brainstem injury.
Treatments for sleep apnea
Sleep apnea is a treatable condition and there are multiple treatments that can be done at home such as lifestyle changes or medically. Treatment options include:
  • Lose weight. People who are overweight have extra tissue in the back of their throat, which can block the airway.
  • Quit smoking. Smoking contributes to sleep apnea by increasing inflammation in the throat and airway.
  • Avoid alcohol and sedatives. These drugs will relax the muscles of the throat and can cause difficulty breathing or worsen sleep apnea symptoms.
  • Sleep on your side. Avoid sleeping on your back where gravity is working against you.
  • Use a nasal dilator. Nasal dilators are helpful to open up nasal passages during sleep.
  • Medical treatment with CPAP. A Continuous Positive Airflow Pressure (CPAP) is used commonly for moderate to severe sleep apnea. The CPAP device has a mask that provides a constant stream of air that keeps your airway passages open when you sleep.
  • Medical treatment with BPAP. Bilevel Positive Airway Pressure (BPAP) devices are used for those who cannot adapt to using CPAP. This device automatically adjusts pressure while you’re sleeping, providing more on the inhale and less on the exhale.
  • Mandibular repositioning or tongue retaining device. These two common oral devices open the airway by bringing the jaw lower or moving the tongue forward during sleep.
  • Surgical options. Surgery to increase the size of the airway can reduce sleep apnea episodes.
If you suffer from symptoms of sleep apnea or have more questions regarding sleep apnea symptoms or treatment, visit San Francisco Dentist Mina Levi, DDS on the web at or give us a call at (415) 513-5066.
Topics: Sleep apnea, sleep apnea treatments, snoring, sleep apnea symptoms, San Francisco dentist