Sleep Apnea: Don’t Ignore the Snore – Recognizing the Symptoms of a Dangerous Illness

By: Dr. Robert C. Rawdin

May 5 is Sleep Apnea Awareness Day, and it’s important to understand the severity of this medical condition. Sleep apnea is more than just excessive snoring – it’s a potentially life-threatening condition that can lead to serious health problems, such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart arrhythmias, heart attack, stroke, dementia, and even death.

Understanding Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a condition where your breathing is interrupted during sleep. You actually stop breathing for periods of time. This is usually caused by an obstruction to your airway. When you sleep, all the muscles of the jaw and neck relax and can cause an obstruction of the airway. This may be due to obesity or your individual anatomy. Drinking alcohol or taking sleeping pills can worsen the condition.

The Importance of Diagnosis

It is estimated that there are more than 50 million people in the US that have sleep apnea. However, less than 10% are diagnosed. This is a problem of awareness of the condition and doctors not always questioning patients about sleep. For a proper diagnosis, a patient must have a sleep test. Even if the apnea is mild, it warrants being treated. If you have any of these symptoms, you should ask your doctor or dentist about the need for a sleep test: excessive daytime sleepiness, waking up gasping for air, high blood pressure, excessive snoring, or falling asleep while driving.

Treatment Options

While there are many over-the-counter remedies for snoring, if you have sleep apnea (confirmed by a sleep test), you should have a doctor recommend the proper treatment. Treatment options include a CPAP (continuous positive air pressure) machine, an oral device (made by a dentist trained in dental sleep medicine), or various surgical procedures. The CPAP machine is very effective when used as directed. However, about 50% of patients that get a CPAP prescribed do not use it as directed or won’t use it at all because they are restrictive to your movement while sleeping and require a lot of maintenance.

One device that is advertised a lot is Inspire. This is a device that is implanted surgically. It stimulates a nerve that forces your tongue out when you inhale. This can be an effective treatment, but it does involve surgery.

The oral devices made by dentists are effective in a majority of cases. Part of the effectiveness is related to the compliance with these easy-to-use devices. The device holds your lower jaw forward to help keep your airway open while you are sleeping. Over-the-counter oral devices, which are not custom-made, may be effective, but they do not compare to custom-made devices that are made by trained dentists.

The Bottom Line

If you feel you may have sleep apnea or you snore excessively, you should talk to your doctor or dentist about getting tested. It truly can be a matter of life and death. Don’t ignore the signs of sleep apnea – seek help and get the treatment you need to sleep soundly and stay healthy.

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