When you hear the words "sleep apnea," what comes to mind? If you're like most people, you probably associate sleep apnea with snoring. But sleep apnea goes far beyond just snoring. Sleep apnea is defined by the Mayo Clinic as "a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts." In itself, the condition is a dangerous one, because it can cause you to stop breathing for upwards of a minute. Worse still, you probably don't realize you've stopped breathing because you're asleep.
As if that weren't motivation enough to speak to your doctor, recent studies have shown that left untreated; sleep apnea can cause numerous other serious, often fatal, health conditions including depression, high blood pressure, heart disease, and type II diabetes. The American Journal of Medicine has also noted that patients with sleep apnea are at increased risk for stroke, even if they have no other stroke risk factors present.
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common form of sleep apnea. OSA is caused when the muscles of the throat relax while you sleep. Patients experiencing OSA are often treated with a continuous positive airway pressure (or CPAP) mask, and oxygen while they sleep. While this therapy is highly effective, there are some patients who find the mask uncomfortable, or who otherwise cannot tolerate CPAP therapy. For those patients, it may be beneficial to try a custom-fit oral appliance -available through many dentists- that can help prop open your airway and help you breathe better while sleeping. Oral devices can also reduce snoring, lower blood pressure, and contribute to reducing the risk of stroke, heart disease and depression. Using an oral device can even help increase glucose control in people with diabetes- something that would typically decrease as apnea worsens.
Dentist Dr. Michele Simpson of Wilmington, NC has been fitting her patients with custom oral appliances and has seen great success with the devices. "Side effects of apnea like stroke and heart disease are worst case scenarios," says Simpson. "But even if all you achieve from using an oral appliance is a more restful night's sleep, the device has done its job."