Sleep apnea is the most common sleep disorder in the United States, affecting as many as twelve million Americans. The disorder has two main causes, but manifests itself in the same way - patients stop breathing for intervals of up to a minute during sleep and as a result suffer from extremely poor sleep quality. Obstructive sleep apnea is more common, and is caused by a physical blockage of the airways, usually caused by soft tissue collapse in the throat or enlarged tonsils (particularly in children). Central sleep apnea is rooted in the brain, due to a failure on its part to continue sending signals for regular breathing during sleep. A third kind of sleep apnea - dubbed mixed or complex sleep apnea is a combination of the two causes. Patients resume breathing on their own, but it is usually accompanied by a loud chocking, snoring, or snorting noise (often to the discomfort of both the patient and his or her bed mate).
Prime risk factors are being male, overweight, over forty, having a large neck size, large tonsils, a large tongue, or a narrow jaw, family history of sleep apnea, gastroesophageal reflux (GERD), or nasal obstruction due to a deviated septum, allergies, or sinus problems. Sleep apnea can pose serious health risks including high blood pressure, stroke, heart failure, irregular heartbeat, and heart attacks, diabetes, depression, worsening of ADHD, impotence, fatigue, and poor performance at school or work. Diagnosis can be made using a polysomnogram (sleep study) performed in an observational laboratory during which a sleep specialist monitors a patient’s activity during sleep in order to rule out other sleep disorders.
Several treatment options are available - for mild cases losing weight, avoiding alcohol and sleeping pills, changing sleep positions to promote regular breathing, cessation of smoking, and avoiding sleeping on the back can be enough to relieve the condition. One of the most effective treatments is Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) which involves wearing a mask over the nose and mouth at night which provides a steady flow of air directly into the nose so that breathing continues unimpaired. Dental devices which are designed to keep airways open at night can be custom made by dentists trained in dealing with the disorder. Surgical options are the most extreme, but can correct any physical causes of sleep apnea such as a deviated septum or an abnormally small lower jaw.
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