The Truth About Sleep Apnea

March 12, 2017 Updated: March 12, 2017

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The American Academy of Sleep Medicine has called sleep apnea “a hidden health crisis costing America billions.” An estimated 30 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea, but remain undiagnosed. Beyond daytime tiredness, if left untreated, sleep apnea can have serious effects on health and well-being. 

The most prevalent health conditions that can arise from untreated sleep apnea are high blood pressure, cardiac disease, and diabetes. Other conditions include stroke, asthma and breathing disorders, insomnia, impotence, weight gain, depression and anxiety, and possible complications in pregnancy.

With this long list, it’s easy to see how sleep apnea could cost billions in health care dollars. Low productivity at work and potential accidents also contribute significantly to the human and financial cost.

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a serious health condition in which one actually stops breathing during sleep. These episodes of not breathing can last from a few seconds to over a minute. And the number of times breathing stops can range from a few times to more than 50 times in one night.

Sleep apnea is classified as either obstructive or central. Obstructive sleep apnea is when the airway becomes obstructed during sleep. When the muscles of the tongue, palate, and throat relax during sleep, they can cause the airway to collapse. The brain then senses the lack of oxygen and sends out a signal to start breathing again. Obstructive sleep apnea is more common in those who are overweight.

With central sleep apnea, there is a problem in the central nervous system. This is a less common but more serious health problem.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Sleep apnea is often not diagnosed for many reasons—doctors don’t routinely screen for it and patients often attribute fatigue to other factors such as stress or not sleeping enough. 

Doctors and dentists should routinely screen their patients for sleep apnea. This can be achieved with a simple questionnaire. Snoring is often a sign of sleep apnea, so chronic snorers should always be tested.

The next step in diagnosis is taking a home sleep test or visiting a sleep lab. Once a diagnosis is made, treatment will depend on the severity of the condition. For mild to moderate sleep apnea, the treatment options include wearing an oral device during sleep to prevent airway obstruction, undergoing surgery of the palate or throat, or using a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine.

For severe sleep apnea, the treatment is either CPAP or surgery.

Benefits of Screening

Sleep apnea awareness has increased somewhat in recent years. Unfortunately, this may be due to tragedy—there have been several deadly accidents involving train operators who have crashed after falling asleep. These operators were later found to have been suffering from sleep apnea. The New York MTA now has all employees screened for sleep apnea. All transportation companies and airlines should be doing the same.

However, all businesses could benefit from screening their employees for the condition. This would result in better productivity, fewer sick days, and happier, healthier employees overall.

Sleep apnea is a serious health condition and often not diagnosed. Please ask your doctor or dentist about being screened. The benefits of treatment can literally add years to your life.

Robert C. Rawdin, DDS
Diplomate, American Board of Prosthodontics
NY Smile Specialists at Gallery 57 Dental
24 W. 57th St., Suite 701
New York, NY 10019