Obstructive sleep apnea means a person stops breathing repeatedly while sleeping, sometimes hundreds of times per night for 10 seconds or longer. This serious sleep disorder can affect anyone, including children, but men are the most likely candidates. Dr. Wyatt Rousseau, a pulmonologist with Southwest Pulmonary Associates, treats this disorder from offices in Dallas, Plano and Irving. He says the condition is far more common than one might initially think — 26 percent of adults are at high risk.
Rousseau points to the “STOP-BANG” checklist, which can be useful if one suspects the disorder pre-diagnosis:
- Observation (has anyone observed you stop breathing while asleep?)
- Pressure: high blood pressure
- Body Mass Index (greater than 30)
- Age (older than 40)
- Neck size (circumference greater than 17 inches for men or 15.5 for women)
- Gender (males are at much higher risk)
Rousseau warns that there are “significant medical consequences” to leaving obstructive sleep apnea untreated, including high blood pressure, which could lead to heart disease and stroke; alterations in mood; sleeplessness; impaired memory and cognition; and feeling excessively tired in daytime.
A diagnosis of the disorder typically comes after an overnight study that takes place at a sleep center. Sleep studies find out how often a person stops breathing, how much oxygen is in the blood, or if too little air is flowing to the lungs during sleep.
Treatments range from conservative measures which include: losing weight, avoiding alcohol, stopping smoking, as it can increase the swelling in the upper airway which may worsen both snoring and apnea. More involved treatments include: continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines, dental devices and surgery.
More involved treatments include:
Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP): a mask is worn over the nose and/or mouth during sleep. The mask is hooked up to a machine that delivers a continuous flow of air into the nostrils. The positive pressure from air flowing into the nostrils helps keep the airways open so that breathing is not impaired.
Dental Devices: custom appliances can be made that help keep the airway open during sleep.
Surgery: In cases of a deviated nasal septum, markedly enlarged tonsils, or a small lower jaw with an overbite causing the throat to be abnormally narrow, surgery may be needed to correct sleep apnea.
Pillar Palatal Implant: The implants work by reducing the movement or vibration of the soft palate with implants designed to stiffen it. Using a special needle, three pieces of polyester mesh are inserted into the soft palate near where it meets the hard palate. The implants have been approved by the FDA for snoring and sleep apnea, but their use has been slowed by its price tag, which is upwards of $2,000. The makers of the implants expect that health insurers will begin reimbursing the procedure in one to two years, after more studies on the implants are completed.