More than food or water, our ability to breathe is essential to our survival. An otherwise healthy individual under average conditions can survive for up to five days without food or water. It’s not healthy or recommended in any way, but if a person has no other choice, and a food or water source can be restored within that time period, most people can recover with limited long-term damage. But without oxygen, brain cells will begin to die after 4 or 5 minutes, and after 15 minutes most individuals can no longer be resuscitated at all.
Breathing is a life or death issue, which is why it is so important to be informed about the different ways the airway can be constricted and what can be done about it so that permanent damage or death does not occur. It’s pretty easy to tell if you are having trouble breathing when you are awake, but during sleep many people stop breathing over and over again all through the night. Sometimes this is because of a neurological issue where the brain actually tells the body to stop breathing, but more often the condition is related to the structure of the airway itself. When some people sleep, the tissues in the airway can relax so much that they actually collapse together, effectively closing the throat. The longer the throat remains closed, the lower the blood oxygen goes. And in a matter of minutes, the situation can become very dangerous.
What I’m describing is a condition called obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). Why would a dentist be talking about what seems to be a medical condition? Because the structure of the airway can be greatly affected in a positive or negative manner by the position of the teeth and the lower jaw. Many people with mild to moderate OSA can benefit greatly from the use of a dental appliance that gently repositions the lower jaw to hold the airway open during sleep.
Even children can have OSA, or they can have other breathing problems related to allergies or chronic illness that will cause them to breathe primarily through the mouth. Children who are mouth-breathers tend to develop narrow arches in the mouth, which can complicate sleep apnea issues as they get older. Early intervention with functional orthodontic appliances that encourage proper arch development and tooth position can help significantly reduce the risk factors for OSA as an adult.
I have been treating and screening patients with OSA for more than 15 years, and I am still surprised at how little most people know about the signs, symptoms, and risks of OSA. Snoring, for example, is an early form of apnea in and of itself, but far too many people ignore even severe snoring, believing it to be benign. It is most certainly not benign.
This month, in an effort to help everyone be more informed about what OSA is and how it can be treated, I am launching a new educational series specifically dedicated to OSA, airway structure, and early development. This series is designed to help you determine if you, your spouse, or your child might need a sleep screening, what kinds of treatments for OSA are available, and how to reduce your overall risk factors for OSA. I hope that you will take a look and share this important information with your friends and your family. We all need to breathe well; there is simply no more important ingredient for life than breath.