According to the National Sleep Foundation, up to 40 million Americans have a sleep disorder. One of the more common ones is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a chronic condition that not only robs you of a good night's sleep, but could contribute to health problems like cardiovascular disease. It's a serious condition and your dentist, you might be surprised to know, may have just the solution for it.
March is National Sleep Awareness Month, when care providers highlight the importance of sleep to health and well-being, and those conditions that detract from it. Here, then, is what you need to know about sleep apnea.
OSA occurs when the airway becomes blocked during sleep. More than likely, muscle relaxation and the effect of gravity have caused the tongue or other parts of the mouth to obstruct the airway.
As the body's oxygen level drops, the brain rouses the body awake to "fix" the problem, usually by relocating the tongue or other obstruction. Afterward, you quickly fall back asleep. It all happens so fast, you may not even realize or remember you've awakened.
The problem, though, is that this can occur several times a night. Because it happens mainly during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, the deepest sleep needed for physical and mental health, it could deprive you of adequate rest.
The most common treatment for OSA is a continuous positive airway pressure device, or CPAP for short. A CPAP machine consists of a small air pump connecting to a full face mask by a flexible hose. The wearer breathes in slightly pressurized air supplied by the pump through the mask, which elevates the air pressure within the mouth. This in turn helps keep the airway open.
CPAP therapy has been able to give many users their best night's sleep in years. But some people find the mask and hose cumbersome (and perhaps claustrophobic), and the pump noise bothersome to them and their sleeping partners. The discomfort may be enough for them to opt out of the therapy.
If you have mild to moderate OSA, however, your dentist may be able to help by creating a custom mouth appliance you wear while sleeping that prevents the tongue from falling back on the airway. Although CPAP might win the gold for treating OSA, this oral device is still a solid silver.
If you suspect you may have OSA or some other sleep disorder, see your doctor for a full examination and evaluation. If you think an OSA mouth appliance would fit your lifestyle better, be sure you discuss it with your dentist. With either therapy, you could be on your way to better sleep and better health.