Sleep Apnea Causes and How to Seek Treatment

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Learn More About Sleep Apnea Causes and Treatments

Sleep apnea is characterized by pauses in breathing during sleep that can last anywhere from several seconds to minutes, and happen as often as 30 times or more per hour. People with sleep apnea will partially awaken as they struggle to breathe, and this is often accompanied by loud snoring or choking sensations.

There are two main types of this disorder:

  1. Central sleep apnea, which occurs when the brain fails to send important signals to the breathing muscles.
  2. Obstructive sleep apnea, which occurs when the soft tissue lying at the back of the patient’s throat collapses into the airway. The tongue then falls towards the back of the throat which tightens the blockage and prevents oxygen from entering the lungs.

Sleep Apnea Complications

Ongoing disrupted breathing causes an imbalance between the carbon dioxide and oxygen levels in the bloodstream, as not enough carbon dioxide is exiting and not enough oxygen is entering the body. Because sleep apnea causes carbon dioxide levels to skyrocket in the blood, and oxygen levels to decrease, the heart has to pump harder and faster to compensate for the lack of oxygen. Sleep apnea patients can technically “die” many times each night.

The problem worsens when the chest region, diaphragm, and abdomen fight for air. The efforts they make to obtain vital oxygen only cause a further tightening of the blockage. The patient must arouse from deep sleep to tense the tongue and remove the soft tissue from the airway. Sleep apnea has been linked to a series of serious heart-related conditions, and should be investigated at the earliest opportunity.

How to Seek Treatment for Sleep Apnea

In all cases where sleep apnea is suspected, the first action would be to either inform your physician or Dr. Hilton. A referral may be made for you to undergo an overnight sleep study (polysomnogram). This can be done in a comprehensive sleep laboratory. In some circumstances, an at-home sleep study (portable monitoring) can be utilized in the process of your treatment. The overnight sleep study evaluates:

  • Breathing and sleeping patterns
  • Snoring
  • Teeth grinding (bruxism)
  • Sleep stage scoring
  • Cardiac arrhythmias
  • Oxygen saturation in your bloodstream and brain
  • Your brain’s electrical activity

Based on these findings, a treatment plan of action to resolve any conditions you may have can be determined. If a laboratory sleep study is performed, a sleep study specialist (respiratory physician), will provide a list of recommendations based upon the severity of the diagnosis. Often times a consultation with an ENT specialist and/or a dentist (Dr. Hilton), trained in the field of sleep medicine, will be required.

Devices Used to Treat Sleep Apnea

Standard treatments for sleep apnea include a CPAP machine, which is made up of a silicone style mask that fits over the oral/nasal airway. This machine applies air (under pressure) that ceases the apnea episodes. Other sleep apnea treatment options may need to be considered due to a lack of compliance, in order to treat the sleep apnea. If the positive airway pressure technique is not used on a completely consistent basis (7 nights per week throughout the entire sleep period), then alternative options must be explored to keep you safe.

An alternative to the CPAP machine is an oral appliance, which simply teases the lower jaw forward and is effective in preventing the tongue from blocking the main air passage.  The act of snoring will usually cease entirely with the use of these sleep apnea devices. Numerous ergonomics of the act of sleeping, such as one's sleeping position and the number of pillows used, often need to be considered. Additional surgical treatment options through an ENT specialist or an oral surgeon may be required in more severe cases of sleep apnea.

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