Sleep apnea is a condition where breathing stops or pauses periodically during sleep. In the United States, approximately 2 to 4% of Americans have sleep apnea that goes undiagnosed. Sleep apnea can become dangerous because it causes a lack of oxygen to be delivered to the brain.
Sleep apnea often occurs in older patients or those who are overweight. Patients with a neck measurement of 15 inches or more are generally considered at risk for developing sleep apnea. However, while sleep apnea often exists in older patients, it can also develop in children.
What Is Sleep Apnea?
There are two different kinds of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA, and central sleep apnea. OSA is the most common form of sleep apnea and is caused by a blocking of the upper airway by the throat muscles. Central sleep apnea is less common and occurs when the brain fails to send signals to the body telling it to breathe. This kind of sleep apnea mostly occurs in adults and is often the result of a head injury.
While dangerous in adults because of its ability to cause heart problems and obstruct peaceful sleep, sleep apnea can be particularly harmful to children because the lack of oxygen and obstructive sleep can lead to difficulties in growth, behavior, and learning as well as health.
What Causes Sleep Apnea?
Obstructed sleep apnea is typically caused by an over-relaxation of the throat muscles. That is, the throat relaxes too much while the child or adult is asleep, causing the airway to temporarily collapse and making it difficult to breathe.
One of the most common causes in children’s OSA is enlarged tonsils, which can block the airway while the child is sleeping even if the muscles of the throat are not relaxed. Additional factors in OSA development include structural defects of the jaw, a family history of OSA, and being overweight.
What Are Sleep Apnea Symptoms?
You may begin to be suspicious of your child suffering from OSA if they are experiencing unusual signs of exhaustion. You may also be able to tell if they wake up periodically throughout the night. However, many sufferers of OSA often are not aware that they have woken up in the middle of the night. Other symptoms of potential OSA in children include:
- Unusual bedwetting
- Restless sleep
- Heavy breathing
- Pauses of breath while sleeping or other gasps or snorts
- Unusual behavioral problems while awake
Is There a Sleep Apnea Treatment?
If you have suspicions that your child is suffering from sleep apnea, consult your pediatrician. Doctors will most likely have your child undergo a sleep study where their breathing is monitored while they sleep. Should OSA be diagnosed, your child can be treated using a CPAP machine.
A CPAP machine continuously pushes air into a person’s airway to keep the throat muscles from collapsing while they sleep. However, because some adults often find CPAP machines to be uncomfortable, there may be a chance that your child feels the same.
Other treatments for your child can be found through family dentistry. A dentist may provide your child with an oral appliance, which keeps the jaw gently separated. The lower jaw is pushed into a forward position while the appliance is worn, which keeps the throat from obstructing the airway while the person sleeps.
If you believe your child is suffering from sleep apnea and they find a CPAP machine uncomfortable, consult your family dentistry about oral appliances. However, should you choose to use an oral appliance through your family dentistry, be sure to consult your child’s pediatrician to ensure the appliance is effectively working.