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What causes sleep apnea?

There was a time when it was widely believed that sleep apnea was a condition that affected only overweight, aging individuals.

While age and weight are certainly risk factors for the development of the condition, it has since become clear that the breathing disorder can be caused by a number of factors and that it actually affects a wide range of people. Obstructive sleep apnea is a condition characterized by some kind of resistance in the airways that makes breathing difficult. In finding the best way of managing the condition, it is essential that the source of resistance is determined — so, what are the factors that cause airway resistance? And what can be done about this issue?

What causes resistance in the airway?

When it comes to airway resistance, there are three main factors to consider: the size of the airway; the collapsibility of the airway; and the velocity of the airway. If these determinants can be addressed before obstructive sleep apnea even occurs, it may be possible to prevent the condition completely.

How can the size of the airway be dealt with?

When it comes to the size of the airway, it can be helpful to lose weight and reduce deposits of fatty tissue in the neck in order to decrease the risk of developing obstructive sleep apnea. Besides this, proper development of the face and jaw are also key factors, and for this reason, orthodontics may play an important part in the prevention of airway disorders. The maxilla and the mandible form a part of the airway, and research has shown that the position of these bones play a role in one’s risk for airway obstruction.

Airway enlargement treatments in children may offer a solution to a restricted airway, and any associated issues. Other orthodontic solutions include palatial expansion; repositioning of the jaws; and orthognathic surgery. Treatments designed to allow the jaws to grow forward can be very helpful, as can dealing with poor myofunctional habits. Myofunctional therapy, which works to strengthen the muscles of the jaw and face and maintain the proper resting position of the tongue on the palate, has been shown to reduce sleep disordered breathing and should be considered when managing breathing disorders.

What affects the collapsibility of the airways?

There are a number of factors that can reduce the resilience of the airway tissues and make them more collapsible. These include swollen tonsils and adenoids (one of the main risk factors in children); poor muscle tone (which can largely be addressed by means of myofunctional therapy); and chronic inflammation of the pharyngeal tissues. While all of these issues can cause some serious problems with the airways, the good news is that they can, to some extent, be treated.

What about the velocity of the airways?

One of the concerns that can affect the velocity of the airways is the issue of over breathing. Also known as chronic hyperventilation, over breathing can shift the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the lungs and blood, leading to reduced oxygenation of the tissues and increased muscle spasms. Heavy breathing during the night causes the pharynx to pull rapidly, increasing turbulence as well as collapsibility in the airway. Some research shows that adjusting daytime breathing habits could be helpful in treating breathing disordered sleep, and simple breathing training could include nasal breathing as much as possible; reduced breathing rate and depth; and increased use of the diaphragm.

If you suspect that you may have sleep apnea, get in touch with us for a thorough evaluation. We will provide you with more information about the condition and let you know how we can help you manage or even prevent it.