Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Most people believe that snoring is normal. It must be stressed, however, that any type of airflow obstruction is abnormal. Air normally enters our nose and passes through the structures of the throat and eventually end up filling the lungs. Any narrowing in this airflow tract produces a sound when air passes through - much like when a person makes a whistling sound. Snoring is a vibration at the back of the throat (specifically the area of the soft palate and the posterior pharyngeal wall) that creates noisy breathing during sleep. When a person is awake, the body is consciously keeping the muscles at the back of our throat tense so as to keep the airway open. During sleep apnea, these muscles tend to relax and collapse leading to a narrowed or obstructed airway. This brief period of narrowing prevents the person from breathing leading to various complications later on.

Anatomy of the Throat in Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Credit: http://nihseniorhealth.gov/sleepandaging/sleepdisorderedbreathing/sleepapnea_popup.html

The diagnosis of Obstructive Sleep Apnea is made if the airway is completely obstructed during sleep for more than 10 seconds in an adult or 8 seconds for a child. This brief spell of airflow obstruction prevents oxygen from getting to the brain. Once the brain recognizes its lack of oxygen, it then ‘wakes up’ from sleep and tenses the muscles at the back of the throat to allow air to pass again. Since the person wakes up from sleep during this brief period, the person shifts from a REM type of sleep (restful type) to a non-REM type of sleep (shallow or non-restful). This shift leads to various symptoms like: Daytime Sleepiness and Poor work or school performance. Aside from such symptoms, snoring and disrupted sleep are also experienced by the person.

Effects of Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Credit: http://lakeoriondentistry.com/Dental-Sleep-Apnea-Georgetown-Dentistry-Lake-Orion-Michigan.html

Today, doctors confirm the diagnosis of Obstructive Sleep Apnea through sleep studies performed in sleep laboratories in any equipped facility or hospital. The patient is hooked up to machines that measure heart beat, breathing, brain wave patterns and snoring in order to catch brief moments during sleep where the person does not breath.

It is important to note that recent studies have suggested that untreated Obstructive Sleep Apnea may lead to heart attack, hypertension and stroke later on in life.

Treatment Options and Practical Tips

Weight loss – it has been noted that Obstructive Sleep Apnea has been linked to obesity. Losing weight has been proven to help reduce or cure the disease.

Sleeping on your side or on your belly – sleeping on one’s side or belly helps keep the airway open because the muscle at the back of the throat that closes the airway is displaced to the side or forward keeping a small portion of the airway open.

Mandibular advancement device – mouthpieces can be fashioned in order to pull forward the lower jaw during sleep to prevent it from collapsing backward thereby keeping the airway open.

CPAP (Continuous Positive Air Pressure) – a mask hooked up to a machine is worn over the mouth and nose during sleep that provides continuous positive airflow through the nose keeping the airway open. This is currently the best treatment for obstructive sleep apnea.

Uvulopalatal Surgery – a more drastic approach to treating the disease and involves performing surgery on the soft palate and throat to try and enlarge the area that prevents air from passing. 

Hopefully by recognizing the signs and symptoms of Obstructive Sleep Apnea, we can prevent death from its future complications through early treatment and management.