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Sleep Apnea and the Role of a Dentist

“Apnea” or “apnoea” refers to the suspension of breathing. Sleep apnea is a disorder that causes obstruction of the air passageways in a person’s throat during sleep. It is a serious condition where a patient may stop breathing for as long as 10 seconds while sleeping, causing the brain and the rest of the body to suffer from a lack of oxygen. With almost 18 million people in the US suffering from sleep apnea, the extent of this disorder is evident. The concept of sleep apnea being discussed on a dentist’s blog might confuse some people, however, the fact of the matter is that a dentist might be one of the first people to observe and point out if a person might be suffering from this disorder.

This blog tries to highlight some basic information about sleep apnea and to establish how a dentist can help in identifying the symptoms of the disorder.

The Types of Sleep Apnea
There are three identified types:
1. Obstructive: The most common and the most threatening type. It involves a relaxation of the muscles in the throat.
2. Central: This type is categorized by the brain suspending the transmission of signals to the throat muscles to regulate the breathing movements.
3. Complex: This type occurs when someone has both of the above two types of apnea.

What factors make you vulnerable
There are a number of things that make a person prone to suffering from sleep apnea. Statistically, males are more likely to suffer from it than females. Other things include having a family history of the disorder, being overweight or being over the age of 40.

Possible causes of Sleep Apnea
The different types of apnea can have different causes. Obstructive sleep apnea is the more common type and results when the throat muscles relax when the brain senses a difficulty in breathing while you’re asleep. This might be because the soft tissue that covers your windpipe has collapsed due to excessive pressure exerted on it because of improper sleeping position. The brain wakes you up to correct your breathing but these bouts are so minute that you fail to notice it. It can happen 5 to 30 times every hour and the person might fail to notice it altogether.

Complex sleep apnea is when the brain doesn’t send appropriate signals to your throat muscles to control breathing. This type of apnea is rare and causes you to wake up or render you completely sleepless.

Where does a dentist fit into the picture?
People visit dentists more frequently than they visit a physician and this is why a dentist is more likely to identify the symptoms and possible occurrence of sleep apnea in a patient. Since sleep apnea has to deal with the obstruction of the throat, patients usually discuss their symptoms with their dentist who can then analyze and refer the person to a sleep medicine specialist.

Something as simple as snoring can be a symptom of sleep apnea and as we’ve tried to make a point, it not something to be taken lightly because if left untreated, this disorder can cause enormous amounts of discomfort throughout your lifetime.