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Sleep apnea is a potentially life-threatening sleep disorder characterized by repeated pauses in breathing during sleep. The term sleep apnea is derived from the Greek etymology meaning “without breath”. Breathing pauses can last anywhere from several seconds to minutes, and happen as often as 30 times or more per hour. Ongoing disrupted breathing causes an imbalance between the carbon dioxide and oxygen levels in the bloodstream, as not enough carbon dioxide is exiting and not enough oxygen is entering the body.

Sensing this imbalance, the brain sends a message to the body, telling it to wake up to restart the breathing process. People with sleep apnea will partially awake as they struggle to breathe, and this is often accompanied by loud snoring or choking sensations. Because people with sleep apnea don’t always completely awake during the episodes, they are often unaware they have a sleeping disorder and it can remain undiagnosed.

There are two main types of this disorder; central sleep apnea which occurs when the brain fails to send important signals to the breathing muscles, and obstructive sleep apnea which occurs when air cannot flow through the nose or mouth even though the body is still trying to breathe. Obstructive sleep apnea is far more prevalent and easily treatable by our team.

Common signs of obstructive sleep apnea can include severe early morning headaches, sleepiness in the daytime, and insomnia. There are many FDA approved custom appliances that we can use to maintain your airway while you sleep. These are not to be confused with a mouthguard or an online one-size fits all type of device. Those items typically are not effective and not approved by the FDA for the treatment of OSA.  

Reason for treating sleep apnea

It is very important to seek medical attention if sleep apnea is suspected. A sufferer can completely stop numerous times per hour, and this can quickly turn into a deadly situation. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the soft tissue lying at the back of the patient’s throat collapses into the airway. The tongue then falls towards the back of the throat which tightens the blockage and prevents oxygen from entering the lungs.

The problem worsens when the chest region, diaphragm, and abdomen fight for air. The efforts they make to obtain vital oxygen only cause a further tightening of the blockage. The patient must arouse from deep sleep to tense the tongue and remove the soft tissue from the airway.

Because sleep apnea causes carbon dioxide levels to skyrocket in the blood and oxygen levels to decrease, the heart has to pump harder and faster to compensate for the lack of oxygen. Sleep apnea patients can technically “die” many times each night. Sleep apnea has been linked to a series of serious heart-related conditions.

What does sleep apnea treatment involve?

Initially, we  want to meet with you to understand your concerns. To do this, we need to confirm your diagnosis with your physician. He or she will be able to tell us if you need help with snoring, or if you have mild or moderate OSA.  In some cases we are asked to assist in providing a device to be used with CPAP. Once we have confirmed this with your doctor, we'll perform a clinical exam to determine if you are a candidate for an oral appliance and if so, which type. There are many appliances to chose from and we want to help you determine what will work best for you. At the end of the day, your appliance will only be effective if you use it consistently. We will also reinforce what you were probably already advised by your doctor:  don't engage in habits that aggravate sleep apnea such as smoking, minimize alcohol consumption, and avoid tranquilizer use.

Sleeping masks were traditionally used to keep the patient’s airways open while they slept, but nowadays there are some less intrusive options. Mandibular repositioning devices that gently tease the lower jaw forward are very effective in preventing the tongue from blocking the main air passage.  These devices are gentle, easy to wear, and often help patients avoid unwanted surgeries.

A more permanent solution is to have surgery that sections the lower jaw and helps pull the bone holding the tongue forward slightly. This surgery has an impressive success rate when performed by an oral surgeon.