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Sleep Apnea - Even Athletes are at Risk

Outline: Dentists and physicians are discovering that sleep apnea is not just a fat person disease.

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Appearances Can Be Deceiving in Sleep Apnea Cases: Even Athletes are at Risk - More and more dentists and physicians are discovering that sleep apnea isn't just a fat person's disease - athletes are at risk too, and they may face more acutely life-threatening health effects because of their condition.

A recent article on the Men's Health website told a cautionary tale of a man named Tom Zehmisch. He died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 46. Only four months earlier, he had participated in a national swim meet and he died while participating in a triathlon. To look at Tom, you would not have thought him to be at risk of obstructive sleep apnea.

The stereotypical obstructive sleep apnea patient is more like Don Dillard who, in 2007 had reached a staggering 401 pounds on the scale. He had been hospitalized four times for serious health problems including congestive heart failure, and was diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea.

So what do Tom Zehmisch and Don Dillard have in common? The answer is airways.

"Obesity certainly contributes to problems with obstructive sleep apnea, but you don't have to be overweight to have problems with airway obstruction," says Denver sleep apnea dentist, Dr. Kevin Berry. Dentists have become increasingly involved in the treatment of sleep apnea and in referring patients to sleep centers for sleep studies such as those detailed in the Men's Health article.

According to the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine, between 18 million and 20 million Americans suffer from obstructive sleep apnea. Not all of them have been officially diagnosed and treated, and not all of them are overweight. "I see patients all day. Statistically, I know that a good number of them are likely to be sleep apneics, so I've just made it part of my practice to ask the right questions. Do you snore? Do you have problems with daytime sleepiness? I send them for a sleep study, and sure enough. It's astounding how many people suffer from this condition and don't even realize it," says Philadelphia sleep apnea dentist, Dr. Kenneth Siegel.

"There are athletes everywhere who have sleep apnea," says W. Christopher Winter, M.D., medical director of the Martha Jefferson Hospital sleep medicine center in Charlottesville, Virginia. "Not only does the apnea affect their athletic performance, but it is extremely hard on their cardiovascular systems as well."

"Sleep is the time of recovery for the human body," says Corpus Christi sleep apnea dentist, Dr. Don Lowrance, "During the day, an athlete may be very hard on his or her body, and then, in the case of an athlete with sleep apnea, the body isn't able to fully heal itself because of the low blood oxygen level due to the sleep apnea. So not only is the patient suffocating in his sleep, but his body is slowly degrading because it never has a chance to heal."

In light of this, more doctors, dentists, and medical researchers are taking sleep apnea more seriously and aren't limiting the scope of their treatment and research to patients who are obese. Dr. Eric Mair of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is an advocate of routine screening for sleep apnea. In a study that Dr. Mair conducted in 2006 with researchers from Wilford Hall U.S. Air Force Medical Center, he found that, "The traits that make professional soldiers formidable on the battlefield, including increased BMI from upper-body muscular hypertrophy, and large, muscular necks, can leave them gasping for breath as they sleep."

"The physical characteristics associated with optimal performance in certain sports can also predispose athletes to sleep apnea," finds Dr. Helene Emsellem, director for Sleep and Wake Disorders in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

So, how does an athlete know if he or she is at risk"There are a lot of symptoms of sleep apnea to look for, but ultimately, it falls on the members of the medical and dental professions to screen patients for potential sleep apneics, and to not just assume that if the patient is physically fit on the outside that everything's okay," says Dr. Berry, "Early treatment of sleep apnea is the name of the game."

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