No one wants to snore – it can disturb others and may even be embarrassing sometimes (like if you fall asleep on a quiet plane). More than just embarrassing, sometimes there could be more to a snore than just superficial sounds. Sometimes snoring can be evidence of an even deeper problem many people aren’t even aware of.

According to the Mayo Clinic, “sleep apnea is a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts.” People with sleep apnea often snore very loudly, but rarely recognize the potential danger behind their snoring. The Center for Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery has locations in Rock Hill, Lancaster and Fort Mill, SC to help patients who are suffering from sleep apnea. In part one of this two part series we’ll cover what sleep apnea is and what the symptoms are. In part two we will tell you some different remedies and solutions for sleep apnea.

What is sleep apnea?

There are three main types of sleep apnea: Obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea and complex sleep apnea syndrome. All of these types cause a person’s breathing to repeatedly stop and start as they sleep, but there are some differences between what causes it in each of the three types.

Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common form and occurs when a person’s throat muscles relax too much while they are sleeping. The relaxation of the throat muscles causes the airway to become blocked so the lungs are not able to receive all the air that they need.

When obstructive sleep apnea occurs, the tongue is sucked against the back of the throat while a person is sleeping (usually on their back). This causes the upper airway to become blocked and airflow is temporarily stopped. When the level of oxygen in the brain becomes significantly lowered, the person is partially awoken from sleep, clearing the blocked airway and allowing oxygen to flow again. This cycle is repeated throughout the night. The disruption in sleep results in low blood oxygen levels in a person. This combination of lack of sleep and low blood oxygen means a person will feel excessively tired even though they may have gotten a full night’s sleep.

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The other and less common type of sleep apnea is central sleep apnea. This results in the same outcome as obstructive sleep apnea, but is caused by the brain not sending proper signals to the muscles that control breathing while a person is asleep. Complex sleep apnea can occur when a person has both obstructive and central sleep apnea.

What are the causes?

Obstructive sleep apnea is caused when the muscles in the back of the throat relax. These muscles support your tonsils, tongue, soft palate and the side walls of your throat. A lack of support from your muscles causes these to partially or completely obstruct your airway. When your blood oxygen levels lower to a certain point your brain is able to sense that you are having trouble breathing, so you are woken from sleep. When a person with this sleep apnea is woken up it is usually done with a choke or gasp, but the moment of waking up is so brief that the person usually doesn’t even realize they are awake and instantly falls back asleep. Since this process is repeated so many times throughout the night – anywhere from five to 30 times an hour – the person is never able to reach the deeper phases of sleep and wakes up feeling tired.

There are various risk factors that may cause or worsen sleep apnea. Some risk factors are within your control while some are biological.

Risk factors that are within your control are weight, smoking and alcohol and drug use. Obesity greatly increases your risk of sleep apnea because having more fat deposits around your upper airway can increase the potential for obstruction. Smokers are also up to three times more likely to suffer from obstructive sleep apnea than non smokers. This is because smoking can increase fluid retention and the amount of inflammation in your upper airway. Drinking alcohol or using sedatives or tranquilizers also increases the risk of sleep apnea. This is due to the fact that these substances further relax the muscles in your throat while you sleep.

Risk factors that are outside of your control, but can be managed through treatment are your neck circumference, gender, age, family history and amount of nasal congestion. Having a thicker neck or just a more narrow throat, can mean that your airway is more narrow. Men have been shown to be two or three times more likely to have sleep apnea than women are. Age also plays a role because being older significantly increases your chance of risk for sleep apnea.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms for sleep apnea include loud snoring, gasping for air during sleep, dry mouth and a headache upon waking, difficulty staying asleep, periods in which you stop breathing during sleep, difficulty paying attention while awake and irritability. Of course, it’s possible to experience some of these symptoms without having sleep apnea. It is recommended to see a doctor if you are told that you appear to stop breathing while you sleep or if these symptoms are affecting your daily life. The team at The Center of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery are trained and able to assess patients for sleep apnea. Whether you are in Rock Hill, Fort Mill, Lancaster or the surrounding areas, their multiple locations are able to serve you.

Be sure to check out part two of this series where we’ll cover how sleep apnea can be treated and how The Center of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery treats patients with this condition.

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