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Snoring and obstructive sleep apnoea


What causes snoring?

During sleep, the muscles in the neck relax and the lower jaw and tongue fall back, partially blocking the airway. With each incoming breath, the loose tissues of the soft palate and the back of the tongue vibrate with the force of the air passing over them through the constricted airway, making the sound we know as snoring.


A person’s likelihood of snoring is affected by:

  • Physiology – the shape of the airway in some people makes snoring more likely.
  • Sleeping on one's back - the tongue is likely to drop to the back of the mouth.
  • Being overweight – excess body fat increases the chances of snoring.
  • Age - as we age weaker throat muscles increase snoring.
  • Lifestyle - some people snore after drinking alcohol or taking sleeping tablets due to the extra relaxation caused in the neck and throat.


Snoring is a sleep breathing disorder caused by partial closure of the airway during sleep. At the other end of the spectrum is ‘obstructive sleep apnoea’ or OSA.

What is obstructive sleep apnoea?

Obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) occurs when the tissues in the upper throat collapse completely – not partially as in snoring – and block the passage of air. Breath is temporarily stopped, but in most cases the person is unaware of it. The gaps in breathing decrease the amount of oxygen in the blood, and eventually this lack of oxygen triggers the lungs to suck in air. At this point, the person may make a gasping, snorting or snoring sound but does not usually fully wake up. 


The gaps in breathing are called apnoeas, and are defined as “obstructive” if they last for at least 10 seconds. A sufferer may stop breathing hundreds of times during the night.


How can sleep breathing disorders affect my health?

Snoring can disturb the sleep patterns of the sufferer, their partner and family. This can cause:


  • Relationship issues
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness and lack of energy
  • Morning headaches due to increased carbon dioxide levels in the blood
  • Impaired emotional or mental functioning
  • Higher stress levels due to fatigue
  • Reduced sex drive


OSA additionally puts a strain on the sufferer’s heart due to the cycle of oxygen shortage, adrenalin rush and shock awakening and increases blood pressure. 


It is a serious medical condition linked to an increased risk of diabetes, stroke, heart disease, memory loss and brain damage. 

How are sleep breathing disorders treated?

Mild disorders may be helped by making lifestyle changes:


  • Position of sleeping: people who sleep on their backs are more likely to suffer than those sleeping on their side, due to the effects of gravity in causing the soft tissues to fall back and block the airway.  Maintaining a low-risk sleeping position by rolling onto the side, or using special pillows, or elevating the head of the bed may be effective.
  • Weight Loss: weight reduction reduces snoring and apnoea episodes in many people, sometimes stopping it completely.
  • Smoking, Alcohol, and Drugs: smoking worsens apnoea; alcohol should be avoided within 4 hours of sleep and sedatives and sleeping medications should be avoided.


For more severe disorders the most effective treatment is Continuous Positive Airflow Pressure or CPAP. This is a bedside device connected to a mask worn over the nose; a steady stream of air is supplied at just sufficient pressure to stop the soft tissues collapsing and blocking the airway during sleep.


Unfortunately, CPAP devices are often cumbersome, and the wearing of the mask and the pressure of the air can be claustrophobic and unnerving. The mask can cause irritation and soreness and the nose and throat can become congested or dry.  Although these problems can be alleviated, as many as 50% of patients give up using the CPAP device.


Can my dentist help?

For those with mild to moderate sleep apnoea who are not appropriate candidates for CPAP, or who cannot tolerate the CPAP treatment, a dental appliance may be an option.  The most widely used dental device for sleep apnoea is the mandibular advancement splint or MAS. 

There are several designs but all are customised to fit over the patient’s upper and lower teeth, holding the lower jaw forward and preventing it from falling back and blocking the airway during sleep.

The best appliances are custom made by your dentist and are adjustable so the position of the lower jaw can be regulated and adjusted to best address the snoring problem.


Oral appliances may also be used to prevent the tongue from falling backwards.


Your dentist will be able to advise if a dental appliance would be a suitable treatment for your sleep breathing disorder. 








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