Sleep Apnea

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Ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctors and sleep medicine specialists at UT Southwestern Medical Center’s Sleep and Breathing Disorders Clinic expertly diagnose and treat sleep apnea. We work to create a customized treatment plan to end symptoms and minimize complications.

Proven Treatments for Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea, also called sleep-disordered breathing, is a condition in which a person’s breathing stops and starts multiple times during sleep. A potentially serious condition, sleep apnea can lead to fatigue, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, or other complications.

The types of sleep apnea include:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA): Occurs when the airway becomes blocked during sleep (most common type)
  • Central sleep apnea: Occurs when the brain doesn't send correct signals to the muscles that control breathing
  • Complex sleep apnea syndrome: Occurs when someone has both OSA and central sleep apnea

Clinicians at UT Southwestern’s Sleep and Breathing Disorders Clinic – one of the most advanced sleep centers in the country – diagnose and manage all types of sleep apnea.

Accredited by both the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and The Joint Commission, our center comprises board-certified specialists in sleep medicine, neurology, pulmonology, and otolaryngology as well as certified sleep technologists and licensed respiratory therapists. 

Causes and Risk Factors of Sleep Apnea

People who have sleep apnea can’t get sufficient air, causing them to briefly wake up to take a breath. This rarely causes a complete awakening; most people do not remember it.

OSA, caused by an airway blockage, typically occurs when the muscles in the back of the throat relax. Risk factors include:

  • Being male
  • Being overweight
  • Being older
  • Having a family history of sleep apnea
  • Having a small airway

Central sleep apnea, less common than OSA, is caused by the brain’s failure to transmit signals to the muscles that control breathing. Risk factors include:

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

Symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Dry mouth or sore throat in the morning
  • Headaches
  • Mood disturbances, such as irritability or anxiety
  • Difficulty falling asleep and/or staying asleep (insomnia)
  • Paused breath during sleep (reported by someone else)
  • Snoring
  • Waking up during the night, gasping for air

Sleep Apnea in Children

Although sleep apnea functions the same in children as it does in adults – breathing stops and starts repeatedly throughout sleep – there are some key differences. In children, sleep apnea is often caused by enlarged tonsils and adenoids (a patch of tissue located behind the nose).

Symptoms include behavioral problems – especially hyperactivity and attention problems. Children have sleep apnea most commonly between the ages of 3 and 6 at the time when the tonsils and adenoids enlarge. Sleep apnea can occur at any age and can affect babies, children, and adolescents. It is common in children who are overweight or obese.

Through the Sleep Disorders Center at Children’s Health, UT Southwestern’s pediatric sleep specialists and ENTs treats children and adolescents up to age 21 for all types of sleep disorders. include OSA. Like our Sleep and Breathing Disorders Clinic at UTSW, the Children’s Health center is accredited by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, which recognizes our commitment to providing high-quality, patient-centered care.

Learn more about our Pediatric Ear, Nose, and Throat Program.

Diagnosing Sleep Apnea

To diagnose sleep apnea, we begin with a thorough evaluation, which includes a:

  • Physical exam
  • Discussion of medical history
  • Discussion of symptoms and risk factors

It can be helpful to get the input of someone who shares the same bed or household as the patient.

If sleep apnea is suspected, adult patients are referred to our Sleep and Breathing Disorders Clinic. Young patients can be seen directly by our pediatric ENT specialists. For patients of all ages, we offer the full spectrum of diagnostic techniques, treatments, and advanced technologies.

At the clinic, we will discuss if we need to perform a polysomnogram, also called a sleep study. During this noninvasive test, we collect information about breathing patterns, brain and lung activity, and blood oxygen levels as the patient sleeps.

Alternatively, we might recommend an at-home test to diagnose sleep apnea in adults. This type of test is not as thorough as a sleep study, but it can still capture information such as blood oxygen level, airflow, and heart rate.

If we suspect central sleep apnea, we may recommend an evaluation by a cardiologist or neurologist.

Sleep Apnea Treatment

Behavioral changes are often our first recommendation for managing sleep apnea. These might include:

  • Losing weight
  • Quitting smoking
  • Limiting alcohol
  • Using a wedge pillow to encourage side sleeping

For patients who have nasal allergies, we’ll recommend treating the allergies.

If sleep apnea doesn’t improve after a patient makes behavioral changes, other treatments might help, including:

  • Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP): This device – which contains a mask that’s worn over the nose and mouth during sleep – increases air pressure in the throat so that the airway stays open as the person breathes.
  • Dental devices: These apparatuses, which are available from a dentist, are designed to keep the airway open during sleep.
  • Surgery: Surgical options are considered only after other treatments have failed. We might recommend surgery to:
    • Remove extra tissue from the back of the mouth and top of the throat
    • Reposition the jaw
    • Insert a hypoglossal nerve stimulator, a device that stimulates the muscles used to stick out the tongue, thus opening up the airway
    • Create a new air passageway (through a tracheostomy)

Sleep Apnea Support Services

Patients are encouraged to join our CPAP/Bilevel Positive Airway Pressure (BiPAP) Support Group, which meets on a quarterly basis for one hour. Experts in the field answer questions regarding CPAPs, and we bring in new products and equipment for patients to evaluate to improve their CPAP experience.

For more information, call 214-645-5337.

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