Make no doubt about it: snoring and sleep apnea are significant problems and should be thoroughly investigated with your physician and a sleep specialist. The stress of the heart during times when you’re not breathing – or not taking in enough air – can lead to death. And that’s a serious matter!
The signs and symptoms of snoring and sleep apnea overlap, sometimes making a diagnosis more difficult to determine. The most common signs and symptoms include:
- Excessive daytime sleepiness
- Observed episodes of breathing cessation during sleep
- Abrupt awakenings accompanied by shortness of breath
- Awakening with a dry mouth or sore throat
- Morning headache
- Difficulty staying asleep
- Snoring loud enough to disturb the sleep of others or yourself
- Shortness of breath that awakens you from sleep
- Intermittent pauses in your breathing during sleep
Both snoring and sleep apnea can have many causes and should be diagnosed by your physician. Generally speaking, the root of most situations involving snoring and sleep apnea is a blockage or restriction of the airway. Examinations and sleep studies are necessary to confirm a diagnosis before treatment is started.
Snoring and sleep apnea are similar but decidedly different. Snoring occurs when air flows past relaxed tissues in your throat, causing the tissues to vibrate as you breathe, creating hoarse or harsh sounds. During snoring, the more narrowed your airway, the more forceful the airflow becomes. Tissue vibration increases, and your snoring grows louder.
A variety of factors can lead to snoring, including:
Your mouth anatomy. Excess tissue in your mouth at the back of your throat, such as a low, thick soft palate or enlarged tonsils or adenoids, can narrow your airway. Occasionally, your uvula (triangular piece of tissue hanging from the soft palate) may become or be large, contributing to reduced airflow and increased vibration. Being overweight is another common cause that contributes to narrowing of your airway, too.
Alcohol consumption. Snoring can also be caused by consuming alcohol before bedtime. Alcohol relaxes throat muscles and decreases your body’s natural reflexes to keep your airway open.
Nasal problems. Chronic nasal congestion or a deviate septum (crooked partition between your nostrils) may cause problems.
Sleep apnea. Snoring may also be associated with obstructive sleep apnea, which is a HUGE reason to have snoring checked out. In sleep apnea, your throat tissues obstruct your airway, preventing you from breathing. Sleep apnea can accompanied by loud snoring followed by periods of silence that can last 10 seconds or more. Sometimes, complete obstruction does not occur, but rather, while still snoring, the airway becomes so small that the airflow is inadequate for your needs.
Eventually, the lack of oxygen and an increase in carbon dioxide signal you to wake up, forcing your airway open with a loud snort or gasping sound. This pattern may be repeated many times during the night, and sometimes the person isn’t even aware they have woken up because of this.
Sleep apnea occurs in two main types: obstructive sleep apnea, the more common form that occurs when throat muscles relax, and central sleep apnea, which occurs when your brain doesn’t send proper signals to the muscles that control breathing. Additionally, some people have complex sleep apnea, which is a combination of both.
Commonly, people with sleep apnea are prescribed a CPAP machine to wear while they sleep at night. These machines provide positive pressure airflow to make sure your airway stays open and you keep breathing! There are many designs to these machines, and often people may have to try several options until they find one that “works” for them.
In situations where sleep apnea is mild to moderate in nature, an alternative treatment is the use of a dental appliance. These appliances are designed to hold the lower jaw slightly forward and open, thus opening the airway. These types of appliances are well-tolerated by most, and can help avoid the need for CPAP treatment, surgery to remove excess tissue at the back of the throat, or other procedures to treat sleep apnea. The most common appliances are the mandibular (lower jaw) repositioning appliances. However, there are other designs which may work well, too.
For those who find the CPAP machine uncomfortable or who have a lifestyle that makes taking their CPAP with them because of travel or other choices, a dental appliance may be the solution. Or, for those with only a snoring diagnosis or a mild sleep apnea diagnosis, a dental appliance is a preferred solution. (And yes, they are FDA-approved.)These dental appliances can cost from $350 to $3000, depending on the appliance, the dentist providing the services, and other factors. If you’re finding that you have great difficulty with a CPAP machine, talk to your physician about the possibility of a dental appliance to treat your condition. Under no means should you bypass your physician and go directly to a dentist! The confirmation of a diagnosis of sleep apnea or snoring must be made by your physician before any type of treatment is started.
Lastly, if a dental appliance is chosen as the treatment, a follow-up sleep study is needed to confirm that the appliance is doing what was anticipated. Working with your dentist AND your physician, you can find a solution … it just might save your life!