“Obstructive sleep apnea affects more than 20 million Americans and can lead to hypertension, heart attack, stroke, depression, muscle pain, fibromyalgia, morning headaches, and excessive daytime sleepiness,” according to Chicago sleep expert Dr. Ira L. Shapira, founder of www.iHateCPAP.com.
“Most people with mild sleep apnea are aware that they snore and feel overtired or fatigued but are unaware of potentially serious medical problems which may exist,” he says.
The National Heart and Lung Association explains that people with sleep apnea suffer from a blocked airway due to:
Sleep apnea is about more than just loud snoring, they warn. When your airways are partially or fully blocked during sleep, blood oxygen levels drop. This in turn triggers the release of stress hormones that affect everything from blood pressure and heartbeat to weight management and insulin use.
How deadly is sleep apnea? Just ask someone like Las Vegas crooner / Hawaii state senate candidate Brian Evans. As a virtually unknown third party candidate in the Democratic primary, he managed to secure 4,842 votes and call attention to his personal pet project: sleep apnea awareness. His mother passed away in a hospital bed while recovering from a routine knee surgery. The doctors gave her Morphine and failed to monitor her more carefully, given her respiratory condition.
Furthermore, a number of studies have illuminated the dangers of sleep apnea. Most recently, a study by researchers from John Hopkins University in Baltimore found that severe sleep apnea increases the risk of dying early by 46 percent. The research, published in the PLoS Medicine journal, found that 8.2 percent of those studied had a “severe” sleep disorder, which made them more likely to die from a variety of causes including heart failure and stroke, even when risks like obesity and smoking were factored out.
The search for a suitable cure can be a series of desperate stabs in the dark. The first line of treatment has always been the CPAP machine, which includes a clunky unit attached to a terribly irritating face mask. However, compliance rates are low due to discomfort. They also require regular maintenance for leaky tubes and worn components. Members of the military deployed overseas and business travelers are unable to bring their therapies with them wherever they go.
Not surprisingly, many people are scouring the internet in search of a simpler treatment.
Could it be as simple as learning to play a new instrument? The New Jersey Star-Ledger reported on a study that found playing a wind instrument (like the tuba, piccolo, saxophone, or French horn) nearly halved the risk of developing sleep apnea. Researchers speculated that strengthening the muscles in the back of the throat helps the players breathe better.
Other sleep apnea sufferers wrote in to the Apartment Therapy blog with their cures. As Executive Editor Janel Laban points out, “This can be an even more frustrating problem for couples in small apartments,” when partners can’t just “go to another room” to escape the “aural torture.”
Laban’s readers tried everything from products like the Nasivent and Snorepin (which worked “when they stayed in”), gelatinous menthol strips (which “reduce snoring to a bearable level”) and Mediaflow pillows (which “greatly helped” but did not cure the problem), to “not pleasant” surgery and agonizing lifestyle changes like “eating nothing more than fruit after 5 P.M.” and drinking liquids sparingly.
King 5 News recently reported on a bizarre and somewhat invasive treatment where sleep apnea patients are fitted with a tiny FDA-approved device called “Inspire,” which is implanted using three tiny incisions. When a person snores, a signal is sent to a battery, which stimulates the nerve that moves the tongue forward to enable the patient to breathe normally. Doctors say the device decreases episodes by 75 percent, but not everyone is eager to have technology implanted in their bodies.
“Even though there are symptoms to aid in diagnosing sleep apnea, convincing the patient of the severity of this condition is a huge challenge, not only because they don’t understand how serious a disease it is, but they look at the cost of treatment and say it’s not worth it,” explains Karrie O’Neill, a certified administrative coach for The Team Training Institute, which consults with dental professionals who are learning how to treat sleep apnea.
Dentists, with a prescription from a physician, are increasingly at the forefront of non-invasive sleep apnea treatment. O’Neill explains, “The oral appliance is a custom-made mouthpiece that shifts the lower jaw forward and opens the bite slightly, opening up the airway. Oral Appliance Therapy is usually successful in patients with mild-to-moderate obstructive sleep apnea.”
Dr. Elliot and Dr. Nick, of Long Island Implant and Cosmetic Dentistry, have been fitting patients with custom-made mouthpieces with great success for years. “There is no going back,” the doctors say. “If people were told they could add another 15 years onto their lives just by wearing an insurance-covered mouthguard at night, who wouldn’t take that deal?”
The process is easy. After getting a referral from a primary care physician, the team at Long Island Implant & Cosmetic Dentistry performs an oral examination, takes x-rays and makes sure you are a good candidate for the treatment (meaning that there are no jaw problems or periodontal disease).
They’ll discuss the pros and cons of oral appliance therapy and take impressions of the teeth and create the custom mouthpiece right in office. Small adjustments may be needed to ensure a perfect fit and they recommend a sleep test a few weeks into the therapy to ensure effectiveness.
“All in all, it’s a preferable alternative to surgery, C-PAP machines, and junky over-the-counter products that don’t work to cure the root cause of the breathing impairment,” say Dr. Nick and Dr. Elliot. “It’s easy to transport. It doesn’t take up a lot of space in the bedroom. Also, once insurance covers most of the cost, it’s much cheaper than tuba lessons!”
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