Experts estimate that at least 25 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea. Unfortunately, most people with this sleep disorder are unaware that they have it and a delayed diagnosis can pose serious health risks.
The good news? Most cases of sleep apnea are treatable. Some patients may be able to cure their sleep apnea completely. Getting a sleep apnea diagnosis can be frightening, but it's the first and best step to take to protect your health.
What Causes Sleep Apnea?
The most common type of sleep apnea is known as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). OSA occurs when the muscles in your throat relax during sleep and block airflow. After a minute or so, your body realizes that it’s not getting enough oxygen. You briefly wake, shift your position, and reopen your airway.
Most people with OSA don’t remember waking during the night, although it may happen many times. Your partner may notice that you seem restless during the night or that your breathing has become uneven. These sleep disturbances, including snoring, may be a sign of sleep apnea.
OSA can result from:
- Excess body weight
- A narrow throat
- Nasal problems
- Heaving drinking
Prescription medications, like sedatives, may also cause or worsen a sleep disorder. Sedatives and tranquilizers relax muscles throughout your body, including your throat muscles. Alcohol and tobacco can disrupt your sleep too. If you’re diagnosed with OSA, your doctor may suggest quitting these substances.
OSA can also be linked to structural problems in your airway. Many conditions can block airflow through your nose or throat. An ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor can perform an evaluation and determine the best sleep apnea treatment for you.
Weight and Sleep Health
People who are overweight are significantly more likely to develop sleep apnea. That’s because excess weight around the throat puts pressure on the neck. When lying down, these fat deposits may compress the airway.
If you’re overweight and struggling with sleep apnea, your doctor may suggest a weight-loss program. Maintaining a healthy body weight is an essential part of sleep apnea treatment. Even if your symptoms are linked to ENT disorders, losing weight can still help. Sleep apnea sometimes vanishes completely after weight loss.
But losing weight isn’t always easy. If you struggle with weight loss, your doctor may recommend bariatric surgery. This procedure can help you shed excess pounds and sleep more soundly.
Surgery for Sleep Apnea
In addition to bariatric surgery, there are other surgical procedures that may reduce the severity or even cure sleep apnea.
Surgery can reduce swelling, open up the airways and improve your breathing:
- Radiofrequency turbinate reduction (RFTR) can improve structural problems in the nose, such as a deviated septum and enlarged adenoids, which may be causing OSA.
- Reconstructive surgery can widen the throat and correct an airway collapse from enlarged tonsils, a large tongue or the collapse of the epiglottis.
- Hypoglossal nerve stimulation involves placing a pacemaker in the neck to activate and stabilize the tongue and throat during sleep.
Skeletal issues may also cause sleep apnea. The position of the jaw bones determines the stability and opening of the airways. A retracted jaw position can cause the airways to collapse, but the maxillomandibular advancement (MMA) surgical procedure can help by resetting the upper or lower jaw.
Be sure to speak with a sleep apnea specialist and experienced surgeon to choose the best option for you.
What About CPAP Machines?
A continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine is a standard sleep apnea treatment. But CPAP machines don’t cure sleep apnea. Instead, they improve airflow throughout your nose and throat. If you stop using your CPAP machine, your symptoms may return.
CPAP machines are an effective way to reduce long-term health risks. But they’re not a permanent cure. Many people also find it hard to sleep with a CPAP mask.
If you prefer to avoid a CPAP machine, weight loss or surgery may be a better option. But you might need to use a CPAP machine until your surgery or weight-loss program is complete. Your doctor can help you review the pros and cons of each treatment.
Do Mouthpieces Help?
You might have heard that dental appliances or mouthpieces can cure sleep apnea. These devices can help relieve sleep apnea, but they aren’t a lasting cure. If you stop using your appliance, your symptoms may return.
Many patients still prefer mouthpieces over other options. Mouthpieces fit snugly over your teeth and are worn during sleep. These appliances stabilize your tongue and adjust the position of your jaw to prevent sleep apnea. Since they’re easy to use, mouthpieces can be an effective treatment for many people.
The Bottom Line
Sleep apnea is considered a chronic condition. But it may be possible for some patients to cure sleep apnea. Surgery or weight loss can deliver lasting relief. CPAP machines and oral appliances can reduce your symptoms and your risk of health problems.
No matter which sleep apnea treatment you choose, early intervention is essential. The sooner you begin treatment, the lower your risk of health problems. Sleep apnea can cause serious health risks and, without treatment, it may lead to an early death. But a prompt diagnosis protects your health and allows you to live a longer, healthier life.
If you suspect that you or a loved one is suffering from sleep apnea, an at-home sleep test can be an easy, convenient way to find out. Lunella allows consumers to take a sleep apnea test from the comfort of their own home and receive a proper data-driven diagnosis from a board-certified sleep physician and a prescription for treatment, if necessary.
This blog post contains general information about medical conditions and potential treatments. It is not medical advice. If you have any medical questions, please consult your doctor.