Sleep apnea is a disorder that is characterized by the sudden cessation of breathing during sleep. These periods of cessation can last for as long as 10 seconds, and they can occur as little as 5 times per hour to as many as 30 times per hour. This deprives the brain of oxygen, resulting in a condition known as hypoxia, which causes the person to feel plagued by drowsiness and impaired motor skills the following day. Other symptoms of the disorder often occur during nighttime hours, including loud snoring and restless sleep.
There are two major forms of the disorder: central sleep apnea (CSA), and obstructive sleep apnea, (OSA). CSA is neurological in nature, and originates within the brain itself. It is caused by a failure on the part of the brain to send the signals that trigger breathing to the muscles in the throat. CSA often occurs in infants and children as the result of underdeveloped neurons. In adults, it can develop as a side-effect of head injuries, neuromuscular disorders, and even certain medications.
Obstructive sleep apnea is more common, and unlike CSA, has nothing to do with neurotransmitters. The cause of OSA is due to the throat muscles themselves collapsing due to excessive relaxation, pressure from obesity, or side effects from smoking or excessive alcohol consumption. OSA affects approximately 17% of the male and female middle-aged populations and can remain undetected for months, if not years, until the person realizes that his or her constant fatigue is due to a sleep disorder, and not a lack of sleep itself.
Both forms of sleep apnea can be very serious because of the way respiration and oxygenation of the blood stream is affected. Complications with heart problems and an increased risk of stroke can result if the disorder is not proactively dealt with. Persons who suspect they suffer from sleep apnea should contact a physician, who can refer them to a diagnostic sleep center where they will stay the night under close observation. The specialists at the center will be able to diagnose if sleep apnea is indeed the problem, what type of apnea the person suffers from, and whether it is a mild, moderate, or severe case.
Very severe cases of sleep apnea sometimes require surgery, although this is not the normal course of action that most medical care givers provide. A more common treatment for the disorder is the use of a CPAP machine and mask. CPAP stands for continuous positive airway pressure. The CPAP mask is molded by the doctor or dentist to fit the patients face. It effectively seals the mouth and nose, allowing the pressure inside the machine to push just enough air into the trachea to keep throat muscles open and breathing regular. The amount of pressure the machine exerts is determined by the settings that the doctor determines are necessary for that particular individuals needs. The consistency of airflow restores the normal supply of oxygen to the brain, allowing the person to sleep normally and wake up refreshed the following day.
CPAP, however, works better for some patients than others. Many patients find the mask cumbersome and uncomfortable. Others complain that when they first wake up in the morning, it is difficult to start breathing again on their own. This leads to either non-compliance or irregular usage of the device, and thus negates its benefits.
For such individuals, there is an alternative device to use in treating sleep apnea that has been proven to work equally well in managing both mild and moderate cases of the disorder. This method uses an oral device that is custom-made by a dentist to fit over the upper and lower jaws of the patient like a mouth guard. Its special design forces the lower jaw to move just ever so slightly forward. This creates enough tension in the throat muscles to prevent collapse, allowing normal breathing to occur without the aid of a machine.
The decision to use either CPAP or an oral device is a decision that needs to be made by the doctor and the patient together. Comfort is an issue, because anything too uncomfortable may tempt the patient into non-compliance or irregular use. Effective care is another issue, and should be monitored closely by the physician or dentist to ensure that treatment is working as planned at all times.