Obstructive sleep apnea affects a patient’s quality of life. The snoring, daytime tiredness, and increased risk of other medical disorders lead many patients to doctors for prescriptions, medical devices, and even surgery. Chiropractic care may offer a non-medical alternative, or complement, for some OSA patients.
What is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a serious disorder is characterized by a patient who repeatedly stops breathing throughout the night. There can even be “hypopnea” or “low breathing” episodes as well. A patient is diagnosed after participating in a “sleep study” (an overnight sleeping test called a polysomnogram) or with a home test of oxygen saturation in the blood called “pulse oximetry”. A person may not realize they have OSA, because they breathe normally throughout the day. They may even have become used to their own daytime tiredness and fatigue, memory loss, moodiness, and decreased attentiveness. Patients are often referred to a doctor by someone else who witnesses the snoring or breathing difficulties at night. The people most at risk for sleep apnea are men and the elderly. OSA is caused by “low muscle tone and soft tissue around the airway”, often in overweight people or people with other structural abnormalities (i.e., enlarged tonsils). Age, obesity, and smoking increase the risks of developing OSA.1
Complications of Apnea
Without treatment, people with OSA are at high risk for other serious complications. These can include cardiovascular problems: high blood pressure, stroke, atrial fibrillation, and congestive heart failure. Stress on the cardiovascular system is caused by the blood oxygen levels dropping so suddenly. Other complications include daytime fatigue and other mood and attention problems, headaches, and sleep-deprived partners, as noted before. OSA can also cause issues with taking medications and having future surgery, because of the difficulties breathing.2
Traditional Treatments of Apnea
Some of the first methods for addressing sleep apnea include having a patient avoid sleeping pills and alcohol, positional changes (such as sleeping on the side rather than the back), quitting smoking, and losing weight. Typically, medical doctors may prescribe dental devices to keep the airway open, or even the use of a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine, which is a mask that forces air into the patient through the nose or nose and mouth. This keeps the airways open all of the time. It is the most effective medical treatment known. Some doctors will perform nasal surgery, Uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP) to removes soft tissue in the throat and palate, or Mandibular Maxillar Advancement Surgery to correct facial and throat abnormalities.3
Chiropractors may advocate the conservative approaches to treating apnea, such as dietary and sleep position changes. Some chiropractors feel that, in addition to obesity, OSA could also be caused by neck trauma or neck curvature. They may recommend neck stretching, exercises, massage, or even acupuncture (to open the airways), in addition to other regular chiropractic adjustments.4 There is a chiropractic theory that “Tightness in the TMJ or Temporomandibular Joint can further compound the issue by causing pharyngeal spasming.” Therefore, some chiropractic treatments can “retrain the neck muscles and improve the neck and cervical spine posture”.5
Learn about other sleep disorders.