Unless they’re functioning on some super-human reserve of energy, most people are tired during the day. We live our lives constantly running from point to point, juggling busy schedules that wear us down physically, mentally, and emotionally. So how do you know you’ve got something more serious going on than a simple matter of being over-stressed and over scheduled? When your health is on the line, it’s important to take a deeper look at how you’re feeling and whether that overwhelming desire to take a nap is really symptomatic of a sleep disorder like sleep apnea.
If you’re like a large percentage of the population, you probably associate the words “sleep apnea” with older people. A majority of us form a picture in our heads of elderly individuals nodding off in the middle of the day, their heads dropping to their chests as they’re suddenly overcome with drowsiness and fall asleep, only to suddenly jolt awake with a snort a few minutes later. It’s a common misconception; but the fact of the matter is this: sleep apnea is a disorder that affects people of all ages, from children to adults, and it can be dangerous if it’s left untreated.
Defined by Mayo Clinic as “a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts,” there are actually three types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea, and complex sleep apnea. The most commonly experienced of the three—obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA—occurs when the muscles located at the back of the throat relax, causing the airway to narrow or close as you breathe in. As a result, you can’t get enough air, and the oxygen level in your blood lowers, alerting your brain to the fact that you can’t breathe and briefly rousing you from sleep so that you can reopen your airway. The period of wakefulness is usually so brief that you don’t remember it, which is why most people don’t recognize the fact that they have OSA on their own. This pattern of waking to restore your oxygen supply can repeat itself five to 30 times or more each hour throughout the course of the night, which severely impairs your ability to experience deep, restful sleep.
Without that restful sleep, you’re at risk in ways you might never have dreamed of. “Left untreated, sleep apnea is dangerous because of the excessive daytime sleepiness and driving while drowsy,” says Jennifer J. Cornell, DDS, of Back to Basics Dental Center, LLC, DBA Back 2 Basics Dentistry. In her work at Dental Sleep Solutions of Clarksville, Dr. Cornell has been treating patients with obstructive sleep apnea, snoring, and nighttime bruxism for more than seven years, specializing in providing dental appliances to patients that better their health through better sleep.
“Left untreated, sleep apnea is dangerous because of the excessive daytime sleepiness and driving while drowsy." Dr. Jennifer J. Cornell
Among those issues is damage to the heart and liver, diabetes, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, and complications with medications and surgery. “When the body cannot rest and recuperate your body remains in a constant state of stress due to lack of proper oxygen levels circulating in the blood, which leads to the brain, organs, and tissues not being able to repair themselves and recover from the day, which would normally be done during sleep. Since your body is struggling to breathe and pull in oxygen, you’re left feeling more exhausted throughout the day.” That daytime fatigue means you’re more likely to fall asleep during normal activities; and children and adolescents with sleep apnea often suffer from poor grades at school or experience behavior problems.
So just what are the symptoms of OSA? “Most commonly, symptoms include excessive daytime sleepiness, snoring, waking up choking or gasping, morning headaches, restless sleep, forgetfulness, mood changes, and even decreased interest in sex. Dental symptoms include nighttime grinding or clenching of teeth, mouth breathing, scalloped tongue, cheek biting, excessive wearing of teeth, broken dental restorations, and broken teeth,” Dr. Cornell says.
Solving the problem is critical, but key to that is diagnosis, which is done using various tests such as home sleep testing (HST) or observed sleep testing in a sleep lab. “Once the results are interpreted by a board-certified sleep physician, recommendations for treatment can be made, based on severity of sleep apnea,” Dr. Cornell explains. “Oral appliance therapy is generally recommended for mild and mild to moderate OSA, while moderate to severe OSA’s first line of treatment is the use of Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machines. In some cases, however, CPAP treatment is not tolerable by the patient; so oral appliances may be used as an alternative.”
Just how it works is pretty simple, according to Dr. Cornell. “The appliances hold the lower jaw forward and stable while you sleep, thus keeping the airway open and not allowing for the collapse of the tissues involved in proper breathing.” Custom-made to the patient’s mouth and teeth, the appliances can do their work to allow clear breathing during sleep; and that’s definitely a dream come true.
MEET THE EXPERT: JENNIFER J. CORNELL, DDS, FAGD
Dr. Jennifer Cornell is the owner of Back 2 Basics Dentistry in Clarksville and specializes in cosmetic dentistry as well as sleep dentistry. She is a member of the American Dental Association (ADA), the Tennessee Dental Association (TDA) and the local 8th District Dental Society. She is also a member of the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD), American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine (AADSM), American Association of Implant Dentistry (AAID) and Special Care Dentistry (SCD).