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Sleep apnea is a potentially life-threatening sleep disorder characterized by repeated pauses in breathing during sleep. The term sleep apnea is derived from the Greek etymology meaning “without breath”. Breathing pauses can last anywhere from several seconds to minutes, and happen as often as 30 times or more per hour. Ongoing disrupted breathing causes an imbalance between the carbon dioxide and oxygen levels in the bloodstream, as not enough carbon dioxide is exiting and not enough oxygen is entering the body.

Sensing this imbalance, the brain sends a message to the body, telling it to wake up to restart breathing the process. People with sleep apnea will partially awake as they struggle to breathe, and this is often accompanied by loud snoring or choking sensations. Because people with sleep apnea don’t always completely awake during the episodes, they are often unaware they have a sleeping disorder and it can remain undiagnosed.

There are two main types of this disorder; central sleep apnea which occurs when the brain fails to send important signals to the breathing muscles, and obstructive sleep apnea which occurs when air cannot flow through the nose or mouth even though the body is still trying to breathe. Obstructive sleep apnea is far more prevalent and easily treatable by the dentist.

Common signs of obstructive sleep apnea can include severe early morning headaches, sleepiness in the daytime, and insomnia. Fortunately, Dr LaFemina is equipped with the necessary technology and expertise to treat sleep apnea in several different ways.

Reason for treating sleep apnea

It is very important to seek medical attention if sleep apnea is suspected. A sufferer can completely stop breathing numerous times per hour, and this can quickly turn into a deadly situation. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the soft tissue lying at the back of the patient’s throat collapses into the airway. The tongue then falls towards the back of the throat which tightens the blockage and prevents oxygen from entering the lungs.

The problem worsens when the chest region, diaphragm, and abdomen fight for air. The efforts they make to obtain vital oxygen only cause a further tightening of the blockage. The patient must arouse from deep sleep to tense the tongue and remove the soft tissue from the airway.

Because sleep apnea causes carbon dioxide levels to skyrocket in the blood and oxygen levels to decrease, the heart has to pump harder and faster to compensate for the lack of oxygen. Sleep apnea patients can technically “die”, or begin to actually suffocate, many times each night. Sleep apnea has been linked to a series of serious heart-related conditions, even death, and should be investigated by the dentist at the earliest opportunity.  Obstructive sleep apnea has also been associated with diabetes, erectile dysfunction and acid reflux disease.  More  recent research has shown that people with untreated sleep apnea have a fivefold increase in potential to develop cancer in their lifetime.

What does sleep apnea treatment involve?

Initially, Dr LaFemina will want to interview you and order appropriate tests. A board certified sleep MD, with whom Dr LaFemina works closely, will diagnose the presence or absense of sleep apnea.  Dr LaFemina can talk to you about the treatment options available.  He may advise the patient to halt some habits that aggravate sleep apnea such as smoking, alcohol consumption, and tranquilizer use.

Sleeping masks, delivering air in to the lungs(CPAP machine), are traditionally used to keep the patient’s airways open while they slept. There is no question that  CPAP therapy is effective for all levels of sleep apnea. The reality is that 60% of patients stop using the mask within 1 year.  Now, there are some less intrusive options. Dental devices that gently tease the lower jaw forward are very effective in preventing the tongue from blocking the main air passage.  These dental devices are gentle, easy to wear, and often help patients avoid unwanted surgeries.  Dr LaFemina can determine if you are a candidate for this type of treament, especially if you have given up using a CPAP machine.  There IS as alternative available!

Surgery that sections the lower jaw and helps pull the bone holding the tongue forward slightly, or that removes tissue in the back of the throat, may be indicated in some extreme cases.  Dr LaFemina works closely with board certified sleep physicians.  It is the sleep physicain who makes the diagnosis of sleep apnea and together they will devise a suitable treatment plan for each patient.

Our office staff is trained to help in filing claims to your medical insurance for reimbursment for these procedures.  Please call our office today so we can help you.