Causes of Sleep Apnea

snoring man

Although many people think that sleep disorders only involve not getting enough sleep, the truth is that sleep disorders take many shapes and forms. One of the most common sleep disorders affecting Americans today is known as sleep apnea.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea, or obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a medical condition that is characterized by the patient experiencing interruptions to their breathing while they are asleep. In OSA this is because the patient is experiencing an obstruction in their upper airway that is blocking the flow of air from the mouth and nose to the lungs.


When a patient suffers from sleep apnea, the person that they are sleeping next to may notice that their partner stops breathing in the night or appears to hold their breath for a few seconds or more. Their body then recognizes the obstruction and works extra hard to push around it. The patient will then inhale or exhale suddenly, and this may sound like a loud snort or gasp.


The severity of sleep apnea can vary hugely from patient to patient. While one sufferer may only experience intermittent episodes of sleep apnea, patients who are seriously affected could have as many as 100 occurrences of interrupted breathing in just 8 hours of sleep.

Central sleep apnea

There is also another type of sleep apnea known as central sleep apnea or CNS. This variety of sleep apnea is caused by problems with the messages sent between from the brain to the muscles that control breathing, causing the patient to stop breathing. CNS is fairly uncommon and tends to occur in patients who have experienced another underlying medical problem such as heart failure or stroke.

Causes of obstructive sleep apnea

Sleep apnea has many possible causes, but by far the most common reason to develop the condition is being overweight or obese. This is largely because there is extra soft tissue present in the neck and at the back of throat. When this relaxes while the patient is sleeping, loose muscles allow the soft tissue to cause an obstruction in the air passageway.


In addition to obesity, there are other factors that are believed to contribute to the narrowing of the airway that characterizes obstructive sleep apnea. These include:


- Being male. Men are more likely to suffer from OSA than women.

- Age. Obstructive sleep apnea is more common in people over 40.

- Drinking large amounts of alcohol before bed. Alcohol is a relaxant which can make episodes of sleep apnea more likely.

- Smoking. Studies show that people who smoke are more likely to be diagnosed with sleep apnea.

- Taking drugs. Some illegal drugs also have the ability to increase the chance of you experiencing episodes of sleep apnea.

- Taking medications with a sedative effect. Again, these are relaxants and can cause the soft tissues at the back of the throat to collapse and obstruct your airway.

- Genetics. If you have a family history of OSA, you too are more susceptible to the condition.

Why it is important to seek help for obstructive sleep apnea

Although OSA may seem like a fairly mild condition, the effects of living with it can be much more severe than you realize. Some of the reported symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea include:


- Tiredness and lethargy due to interrupted sleep

- Brain fog

- Depression

- Loss of libido

- Memory problems

- Weakened immune system

- High blood pressure

- High cholesterol

- High blood sugar levels, which could lead to Type 2 diabetes


Research also shoes that someone who is sleep deprived due to suffering from OSA could be up to 12 times more likely to be involved in an automobile accident.

Need further support?

If you are concerned that you may be suffering from sleep apnea, it is imperative that you contact us and speak to our dentist as soon as possible to obtain advice on how to best manage the condition. In most instances, lifestyle changes such as weight loss and cutting back on alcohol can make a big difference, but some patients may need to consider treatment. These include using a device to hold your jaw in a different position (known as a mandibular advancement device or MAD), or a machine that delivers continuous positive air into your body via a mask over your face (known as a CPAP machine). Our dentist will be able to advise you what the best course of action is for your specific circumstances.