What is Sleep Apnea?

What is sleep apnea?
17 Jul 2019

If your partner has complained about your snoring for years or you find you suddenly wake up frequently throughout the night, you might have sleep apnea. It can be difficult to know if you have this potentially dangerous disorder as it occurs when you are sleeping.

It causes you to stop breathing in sudden bursts that can last seconds or even minutes several times throughout the night. This is highly disruptive to your sleep, causing you to feel tired in the morning, even though it appears you have slept well. Here is an overview of sleep apnea and why it is important to seek treatment.

Types of Sleep Apnea

As mentioned, sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that causes you to stop breathing in your sleep. There are three main types of sleep apnea:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea is caused when your throat muscles relax
  • Central sleep apnea is a communication issue between your brain and the muscles that control breathing
  • Complex sleep apnea syndrome or treatment-emergent central sleep apnea is a combination of obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

The most common signs and symptoms of obstructive and central sleep apnea include:

  • Loud snoring
  • You stop breathing during sleep
  • Gasping during sleep
  • Dry mouth in the morning
  • Morning headache
  • Insomnia or difficulty staying asleep
  • Sleepiness during the day
  • Difficulty staying focused
  • Irritability

One of the challenges of sleep apnea is that you might not even be aware of the symptoms. It is often a partner or someone else in your household that might complain you are snoring very loudly or that notice you are having difficulty breathing when you sleep.

However, because not everyone with sleep apnea snores, you should pay attention to the daytime symptoms you might be experiencing. This would include being constantly tired, headaches, morning dry mouth and moodiness.

What causes obstructive sleep apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles at the back of your throat relax. This is an issue as these muscles support the soft palate, uvula, tonsils, and the walls of the throat and tongue. With relaxation, all of these supported areas can cause your airway to become too narrow or even close completely.

This stops you from getting enough air and lowers oxygen levels in your blood. Your brain realizes you are not breathing and wakes you to open your airways. Most people do not even know this is happening as it is such a brief incident.

Although this can cause issues such as snorting, gasping and choking, you still might not be registering this is happening even though it can occur more than 12 times per hour.

The risk factors for obstructive sleep apnea include:

  • Excess weight around your neck can obstruct your upper airway
  • People with a thicker neck circumference often have narrower airways
  • Some people are born with a narrow throat that causes narrower airways
  • Issues with tonsils and adenoids can block the airway, which is more common in children
  • Men are more likely to have sleep apnea
  • Women going through menopause and with weight issues are at higher risk for sleep apnea
  • It is significantly more common in older adults
  • If others in your family have sleep apnea it can increase risk
  • Alcohol, sedatives, and tranquillizers relax the muscles in your throat leading to obstructive sleep apnea
  • If you smoke you are three times more likely to have obstructive sleep apnea, as it increases upper airway inflammation and fluid retention
  • Congestion can make it difficult to breathe through your nose

What causes central sleep apnea?

Central sleep apnea is less common. It is caused when your brain is unable to communicate with your breathing muscles properly, which means you will not breathe at all for short periods of time. This can cause you to wake up feeling short of breath and can also make it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep for a prolonged period of time.

The risk factors for central sleep apnea include:

  • Being older
  • Being male
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Using narcotic pain medications such as methadone
  • Having had a stroke

Potential Complications of Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is considered to be a serious medical condition with several potential complications including:


1. Sleep deprivation

One of the most common dangers is daytime fatigue. Poor sleep does not provide you with the restorative sleep required to function properly. This can lead to difficulty concentrating and even the risk of falling asleep when driving or performing other potentially dangerous tasks. This increases the risk of a motor vehicle or workplace accident. Unfortunately, this can also cause issues for your partner’s sleep due to the loud snoring, gasping, and sudden jolts when you wake up.


2. Moodiness

Lack of sleep can cause irritability but can also lead to more serious issues including depression.


3. Poor performance

Children and adolescents with sleep apnea can experience behavioural problems and also see a change in their performance at school. Adults might experience challenges due to their performance at work which can affect their careers.


4. High blood pressure or heart problems

The sudden drops in blood oxygen levels caused by sleep apnea can increase blood pressure, which puts a strain on your cardiovascular system. This also leads to high blood pressure. You can also see an increased risk of:

  • Recurrent heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Abnormal heartbeats
  • Atrial fibrillation
  • Hypoxia or hypoxemia
  • Sudden death due to irregular heartbeat


5. Oral Health Risks

Sleep apnea causes dry mouth, increasing the presence of bacteria which can increase the risk of gum disease, tooth decay and bad breath.

Sleep Apnea Treatments

The most common treatment for sleep apnea is continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy. Using a CPAP machine provides you with forced air throughout the night to help keep your airways open. This is an effective treatment but the mask and tubing can be cumbersome, while the machine can be noisy, which only adds to your sleep problems. If this is the case, you can speak to your doctor about using a sleep apnea appliance.

This can be a much more comfortable solution, as the appliance fits in your mouth and does not require expensive, noisy equipment. Your doctor can provide you with a prescription for the appliance which can be filled at our office. It is worth discussing with our team and your doctor. In the most severe cases, upper airway surgery might be required.

Your dentist can help identify the cause of your sleep apnea and find a solution that will decrease breathing incidences while making it more comfortable for you to sleep.

For more information about sleep apnea, call Guelph Family Dentistry at (888) 588-1691 or contact us here.

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Dr. Omar Al-Azzawi
Dr. Omar Al-Azzawi

Dr. Omar got his BDS degree in 2002 from the University of Baghdad. He has also completed a master degree in Prosthetic Dentistry from the University of Malaya, Malaysia in 2009. Dr. Omar got his DDS in 2013 in Canada after passing the National Dental Examination Board of Canada (NDEB) exams. Read More

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