Sleep apnea is a condition in which the affected individual is unable to breathe during sleep due to an obstructed airway. The condition is cataloged as a respiratory disorder, and those who suffer from it often have episodes of intense and excessive snoring, as well as episodes in which they may stop breathing for more than 30 seconds. Consequently, due to the lack of oxygen and the inability to rest properly, sleep apnea sufferers are usually very drowsy during the day, which in turn affects their performance and mood. It is caused by a physical obstruction in the airway in the form of the patient’s own muscles. This means that, by following certain exercises to strengthen said muscles, he or she can improve apnea symptoms without the need for medication or the use of certain devices to sleep better at night
Apnea is triggered by a collapse of the airway during sleep, caused by the relaxation of the muscles in the pharynx during the person’s sleep. Said collapse is periodic, and is more common in certain sleep phases, particularly in the REM phase. When a person experiences a certain number of apnea episodes during consecutive nights, over a significant period of time, he or she may be diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea.
During the course of the patient’s sleep cycle, he or she may stop breathing on several occasions, or experience shallow respiration at times. Said episodes can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes depending on the severity of the condition. These episodes can manifest up to 30 times per hour. After each one of these, breathing often returns to normal, usually with a very loud snore, or a sound akin to the one a person makes when choking. In most cases, apnea can become a chronic health issue which can alter a person’s sleep patterns; deep, recuperative sleep is replaced by shallow rest in the midst of an episode. For this reason, the quality of sleep suffers and the person will experience excessive drowsiness and fatigue during the day. As of today, sleep apnea is the leading cause of daytime sleepiness, and an important risk factor in the workplace and even the household, especially if the person interacts with dangerous equipment on a daily basis.
The problem with sleep apnea is that, more often than not, its symptoms can be confused with those of a night of bad sleep or stress due to work responsibilities or personal situations. Those who suffer from sleep apnea are constantly tired and irritable due to lackluster sleep. Furthermore, oxygen deprival at night can cause morning headaches, which can further affect the person’s mood. Nevertheless, since the patient can seldom detect sleep apnea by themselves, and the periods in which they wake up to catch their breath is fleeting and doesn’t register in memory, the condition is very hard to detect, especially on those who live by themselves and have no one to listen in on them while they sleep. As such, most cases of sleep apnea go undetected and undiagnosed for long periods of time.
The most common type of sleep apnea is the obstructive variety, in which the patient actively makes the breathing effort, he or she fails to do so due to the collapsed airway. What little oxygen that may still travel through the airway does in the small space remaining, causing the person to snore as he or she gasps for breath. Obstructive sleep apnea is more common in those that are considered obese, as the fat in their neck can add extra pressure to the muscles within, causing the airway to collapse with increased frequency. However, genetics play a vital role in the incidence of this disease, as even patients with healthy weight and lifestyles can suffer from obstructive sleep apnea.
The most effective method of treating sleep apnea and preventing its symptoms from appearing is through the use of a continuous positive airway pressure mask, which is a device worn on the face and pumps oxygen directly in the person’s mouth and nose, keeping the airway open during sleep. This device, however, must be used on a nightly basis, a fact that may get annoying over time. However, there are alternatives methods that can be used alongside the CPAP mask, and which may help to permanently cure the person of this condition in the long run.
If sleep apnea is caused by the collapse or the person’s airway during sleep, then it would make sense to strengthen the muscles that support said airway in order to prevent it from collapsing. This is the principle behind myofunctional therapy, a method through which the muscles of the oropharynx are exercised and strengthened so that the patient’s airway can remain clear at night. Furthermore, these exercises can also help to reinforce the proper position of the tongue within the mouth, removing yet another probable cause of sleep apnea.
Suffice to say, myofunctional therapy is an inexpensive alternative to CPAP and even surgery, and the best part is that it can be performed at home by devoting around 45 minutes of time every day to perform the following exercises:
- The tongue’s natural position is with its tip placed firmly in the front area of the palate, near where the upper teeth begin. For the first exercise, the person must press their tongue hard against this resting place for 5 seconds, repeating the motion at least 10 times.
- The person must try to touch their nose with the tip of their tongue, and hold the position for 10 seconds, repeating the motion 10 times.
- The patient should stick out their tongue and try to touch their chin with its tip, holding the motion for 10 seconds and repeating it 10 times.
- The next step is to stick out the tongue as far to the left as possible, holding for 10 seconds and repeating 10 times. Afterwards, the same must be performed for the opposite side.
- The tongue must be rolled upon itself inside the mouth, like a taco shell, and the stuck out as far as possible, holding the motion for 10 seconds and repeating it up to 10 times.
- The person must click his tongue on the roof of the mouth during 15 seconds and then repeat the act up to 10 times.
- Using a spoon, or any other solid object, the person must push against it with their tongue while attempting to keep it as straight as possible; without folding it. The motion must be held for 10 seconds and repeated 10 times.
- Using the same spoon as the previous exercise, the person must hold it parallel to the floor using only his or her lips. The benefit of this exercise is increased by adding additional weight on the spoon, such as an ice cube, or other small objects.
- By tying a button to the end of a string, the person must introduce said button in the space between the teeth and lips, holding it firmly in place. Afterwards, he or she must pull on the string while using their lips to keep it the button firmly embedded in place, and prevent it from slipping out.
These exercises can be performed by anyone to strengthen their facial muscles and reducing the symptoms of sleep apnea. Like any other exercises, results will only become apparent after some time, so patience is of utmost importance when it comes to myofunctional therapy.