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Childhood sleep apnea goes largely undiagnosed

Although around 15 percent of children suffer from sleep apnea, up to 90 percent of cases remain undiagnosed.

According to new research that was recently published in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, children are largely underdiagnosed when it comes to obstructive sleep apnea. In many cases, the symptoms of the disorder are incorrectly blamed on behavior issues. Read on to find out more about the findings of the research, and why proper diagnosis is so important.

What is pediatric obstructive sleep apnea?

Pediatric obstructive sleep apnea is a type of sleep disorder that causes a child’s breathing to be partially or completely blocked while they sleep. The condition is caused by a blockage in the upper airway.

Obstructive sleep apnea affects children differently to adults. While adults with the condition often experience excessive daytime sleepiness, children tend to display behavioral problems. As a result, sleep apnea is often misdiagnosed, or in many cases, not diagnosed at all.

What kinds of issues does the condition cause?

If left untreated, sleep apnea and other airway-related issues can cause serious damage, particularly when it comes to children’s brain development in the early years. In many cases, children with behavioral issues often suffer from a lack of sleep, but because they are never diagnosed with sleep disordered breathing, these problems are often misattributed to emotional issues.

Deep, restorative sleep is essential for a range of functions, including tissue and bone growth, cell regeneration, as well as cognitive development. When breathing is restricted and sleep is disturbed, the body is unable to complete many of these important processes. As such, conditions like obstructive sleep apnea lead to a number of issues, including fatigue, irritability, migraines, and snoring. Common behavioral issues include difficulty concentrating, hyperactivity, and learning problems.

What causes airway problems in children?

Airway problems in children often occur as a result of age-related developmental issues, such as poor jaw structure. In fact, developmental issues with the jaw, mouth and throat can directly affect the airway and lead to sleep apnea. Some of the most common risk factors include a family history of sleep apnea; being overweight; defects in the mouth, jaw or throat; and underdeveloped features surrounding the airway.

What treatments are available?

Fortunately, if obstructive sleep apnea is identified early, treatment is generally both possible and effective. In children, surgical removal of the tonsils is very often successful in resolving the issue.

Oral appliance therapy is also a good option, and usually involves the use of a device that works to expand the roof of the mouth and increase the volume of the nasal cavity. This helps to considerably improve breathing patterns and eases the uncomfortable symptoms of sleep apnea. Other oral appliances are designed to move the jaw and tongue forward in order to keep the upper airway open while your child sleeps.
Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is also an effective treatment in many cases. The treatment involves use of a machine that blows air through a tube and mask that is attached to your child’s nose and mouth. The CPAP machine works by delivering air pressure to the back of your child’s throat, forcing the airway to remain open.

To find out more about the sleep apnea solutions that we offer, please take a look at our airway treatment page.

If you are concerned about your child, we encourage you to bring them in to see us. Make an appointment today.

You can also take the children’s airway questionnaire here to find out if your child’s behavior could be linked to an airway restriction.