Sleep is essential for a person’s health and wellbeing, according to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF). Yet millions of people do not get enough sleep, and many suffer from lack of sleep. For example, surveys conducted by the NSF (1999-2004) reveal that at least 40 million Americans suffer from over 70 different sleep disorders and 60 percent of adults report having sleep problems a few nights a week or more. Most of those with these problems go undiagnosed and untreated- and one of these disorders is Sleep Apnea.

Sleep Apnea is a severe sleep disorder that can be life-threatening and, at times, fatal. People with sleep apnea often fall asleep regularly; however, their ability to breathe is blocked once they are sleeping. Usually, this inability to breathe is caused by the muscles in the throat, relaxing too much, and collapsing into the airway.  The body then sends a signal to the brain that breathing has temporarily been blocked. This causes the person to wake up and start breathing again.

The cycle of interrupted breathing can occur many times throughout the night. These episodes can occur up to 50 times an hour and last for ten seconds or longer. More often than not, the person that suffers from this sleep disorder is unaware that anything is happening to them. They can not understand why they always feel tired during the daytime.

The most common form of this sleep disorder is obstructive sleep apnea, known as OSA.  Some suffer from obstructive sleep apnea also suffer from central sleep apnea. This sleep disorder is then called mixed sleep apnea.

It is believed that obstructive sleep apnea affects between 18 – 20% of adults in the United States. If this sleep disorder is left untreated, it can become life-threatening and, in rare cases, fatal. It is the underlying cause of illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, pulmonary hypertension, and systemic hypertension.

There are several methods of treatment for sleep apnea, both surgical and noninvasive. The first line of therapy for someone suffering from moderate to severe sleep apnea is called positive airway pressure. Known as PAP, positive airway pressure is a noninvasive form of treatment. A machine delivers a constant flow of air through a mask that is worn while sleeping. The asleep technician must determine the force of the airflow during an overnight sleep study.  There are three types of positive air pressure therapy—CPAP, BiPAP, and AutoPAP.

Dental devices are also used to treat this sleep disorder in mild to moderate cases.  Dental instruments fall into two general categories: mandibular (or lower jaw) and advancing devices (tongue retaining devices). Mandibular devices are used most often.  They attach to the upper jaw and pull the lower jaw and base of the language forward. This shift in position keeps the airway open.

Medications are generally not a successful form of treatment for most people with sleep apnea.  However, many of them do take antidepressants and modafinil.

Supplemental oxygen is often used in conjunction with a PAP machine. Oxygen alone can not prevent the collapse of the airway or sleep fragmentation. However, oxygen can avoid the drop in blood oxygen level that occurs when the airway collapses.

There are also surgical treatments for obstructive sleep apnea that may be an option for some sufferers of this sleep disorder. These include uvulopalatopharyngoplasty, somnoplasty, corrective jaw surgery, palatal implants, and tracheostomy.

People with this sleep disorder generally find that their quality of life can improve with the proper treatment.