What is sleep apnea, and is it dangerous?

Snoring can be a warning sign of a much bigger health issue.

Have you ever been snoozing away only to receive a face-full of pillow from your partner, telling you that your snoring keeps waking them up? Or have you been on the other end of it, struggling to sleep through the halting, impossibly loud snores of your partner? Whether you’re putting on a marathon chainsaw impression or are the one trying to sleep through it, the experience can make for a frustrating night, especially if it’s becoming a nightly routine. Snoring isn’t just an annoying problem, though—it can indicate a dangerous or even life-threatening condition called sleep apnea. We’ve answered some basic questions about sleep apnea below to help you understand its potential dangers as well as how your Greensboro dentist can help you stay healthy and get a full night’s sleep again.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a condition where you repeatedly stop breathing for short periods throughout the night. Different types of sleep apnea have different root causes for this issue, but the most common type is caused by obstructive sleep apnea. With obstructive sleep apnea, the muscles in the back of your throat relax when you fall asleep, allowing your tongue and the tissues in your throat to narrow or completely close. This causes you to stop breathing. Fortunately, your brain recognizes the danger and wakes you up just enough to widen your airway again. You generally don’t remember waking, so you may feel like you’re getting uninterrupted sleep for the entire night when you aren’t. In fact, since you can stop breathing anywhere between five and 30 times an hour all night long, sleep apnea can greatly impact your ability to enter a deep sleep. This keeps you from getting the benefits of these more restful sleep phases. As a result, sleep apnea causes a range of symptoms in addition to loud snoring, including:

  • Gasping, snorting, or choking sounds during sleep.
  • Moodiness.
  • Lack of concentration.
  • Daytime fatigue.
  • Dry mouth in the mornings.
  • Difficulty staying asleep throughout the night.
  • Morning headaches.

If you or your partner notice these symptoms, it’s always best to visit a sleep doctor to investigate whether you have sleep apnea. This way you can begin receiving treatment, which will help you stay healthier and sleep better.

What makes sleep apnea so dangerous?

Based on most of the symptoms we’ve listed so far, sleep apnea may sound exhausting and unpleasant, but not too dangerous. After all, you start breathing again automatically, right? Unfortunately, the reality is that sleep apnea significantly raises your risks of other health complications. These include high blood pressure, liver problems, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and heart problems, like heart disease, a heart attack, and abnormal heartbeats.

Additionally, the constant fatigue and difficulty concentrating that result from this condition can hurt your performance at work and increase the likelihood of accidents. In addition, the condition itself can cause issues with surgery and certain medications. Symptoms like irritability and moodiness can also create problems of their own, potentially putting a strain on your relationships.

What are the risk factors of obstructive sleep apnea?

There is a wide range of risk factors for obstructive sleep apnea. Some are completely outside of your control and others are a little easier to change. Your likelihood of having or developing this condition is greater if you have a family history of the condition, have a naturally narrow throat, or are male. Your age and existing medical conditions also increase your risk. Some other factors that are slightly more controllable are your weight, smoking, or using alcohol or sedatives, as these can relax the muscles in your throat.

How is sleep apnea diagnosed?

If you suspect that you have sleep apnea, you should schedule an appointment with a sleep doctor right away. They will likely perform a sleep study at home or in a sleep center. During the study they will monitor your breathing, heart rate, oxygen levels, and blood pressure throughout the night. Studies done in a sleep center also allow doctors to keep track of how much you’re moving around in your sleep. They will also monitor your lung and brain activity. This allows them to determine when you’ve stopped breathing, how long you stop breathing for, and how often you’re doing this each hour. If you stop breathing five times or more each hour, you’ll likely be diagnosed with sleep apnea.

How can your family dentist help?

A CPAP machine is a common and extremely successful treatment for sleep apnea. The problem with a CPAP machine is that it’s bulky, high-maintenance, and isn’t comfortable for many patients. Not everyone wants to—or can—use a CPAP machine. If you fall into this category, dentists like Dr. Farless can actually help treat your sleep apnea or snoring by using an oral appliance. This appliance looks a lot like a nightguard or mouthguard, but it’s custom-made for you and designed with comfort in mind. When you’re fitted for the oral appliance, Dr. Farless will find your ideal jaw position, which is a comfortable, relaxed position for your jaw that naturally widens your airway, keeping it open.

As a result, the oral appliance you receive is designed to work with your unique body rather than being a one-size-fits-all solution. This helps ensure it’s comfortable and effective. One study found that oral appliances eliminate the symptoms of mild to moderate sleep apnea in 40% to 50% of patients. They improve symptoms in an additional 10% to 20% of cases, making it an effective treatment for the majority of patients.

Snoring might sound harmless, but untreated sleep apnea can lead to a wide range of dangerous health conditions. It’s wise to visit a sleep doctor if you’re experiencing any of the symptoms related to it. Don’t let the idea of using a CPAP machine get between you and your health. Oral appliances are a viable, effective, and comfortable treatment option that you can use instead! If you’d like to learn more about oral appliances and how they may help you get the rest you need, feel free to call our Greensboro dentist office to schedule a consultation.