Sleep apnea is a condition where breathing stops during sleep. Breathing may stop from 5 to more than 30 times an hour, lasting ten seconds to several minutes each time. This causes the oxygen level in your blood to drop. That’s potentially hundreds of times each night that the body and brain are deprived of oxygen.

Symptoms of sleep apnea

Snoring. While many people snore, snoring due to sleep apnea may be louder and more frequent than snoring with other causes. Snoring is the alarm warning us that something is not working correctly.

Waking gasping for breath. When the brain recognizes that it’s not getting enough oxygen, it causes sudden waking or “arousals”. This symptom is often reported by a bed partner, as there may be no memory of waking by the sufferer.

Daytime Sleepiness. When people report getting 7-8 hours of sleep every night yet are still tired during the day, sleep apnea may be the cause. Falling asleep at a stop light or during a meeting are common signs of daytime sleepiness.

Fatigue. Like daytime sleepiness, fatigue is another common symptom of sleep apnea. It’s reported more frequently by women than by men suffering sleep apnea. Fatigue is that feeling that you cannot “get up and go”.

Depression. Depression can lead to disturbed sleep, or disturbed sleep can lead to depression. Still, whether it’s the cause or the result, depression is commonly associated with sleep apnea.

Frequent need to urinate at night. Called nocturia, this is also a sign of sleep apnea. In the absence of a urinary tract disorder, nighttime bathroom trips are a cause to suspect Apnea.

Understanding the causes of sleep apnea

Before looking at the available treatments for sleep apnea, it’s important to understand what causes sleep apnea.

There are two main kinds of sleep apnea: Obstructive (OSA) and Central. (A third kind is a combination of these two called Mixed Apnea.) Central sleep apnea is caused by problems with the signals from the brain that maintain breathing throughout the night. This type of sleep apnea is treated with a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine and can’t be treated with oral appliance interventions.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), on the other hand, can often be treated very effectively with oral appliances. That’s because the apnea is due to a blockage of the airway, such as nasal obstruction, soft palate interference, the airway collapsing, or the tongue falling backward into the airway. If that blockage is corrected or addressed, then the cause of the sleep apnea disappears.

Treatments for OSA

CPAP machines are commonly prescribed to treat OSA, but many people dislike wearing the mask all night long and end up not using it at all.

A good alternative is an oral appliance. At the TMJ & Sleep Therapy Centre of Chicago, we treat sleep apnea with an oral appliance that maintains the jaw in an ideal position during the night, keeping the airway open. It’s extremely effective and many people find it easier to use on a daily basis compared to the CPAP machine. It is important to find the ideal three-dimensional position to avoid causing stress or damage to the TMJ.

Finally, maintaining good sleep hygiene – a quiet, calming environment, comfortable bed, and lack of sleep-disrupting light distractions – is also important for achieving restful sleep.

Get diagnosed and get treated

Diagnosis of sleep apnea must be done by a medical doctor through a sleep study. If you or your bed partner suspect you suffer from sleep apnea, take steps to get the diagnosis so you can move on to treatment as soon as possible. Ask your primary care physician or sleep physician if an oral appliance is an option. The AASM recommends oral appliance therapy for mild to moderate OSA.