Experts estimate that between 22 and 25 million people suffer from sleep apnea in the United States alone. Sleep apnea is a debilitating disorder that affects many aspects of life, from the obvious exhaustion from not getting enough restful sleep to physical ailments such as decreased cardiovascular health, even contributing to increased anxiety and levels of stress hormones. If you have sleep apnea, or know someone who does, then you’re probably already familiar with most of these things. What you might not be aware of, however, is that sleep apnea has recently been linked with something even more ominous—lung cancer.
Sleep apnea occurs when the airway becomes obstructed during sleep. Usually, this happens when soft muscle tissues relax, causing the airway to become blocked. The affected person then becomes unable to breathe, and will wake up choking and gasping. Unless treated, this scenario will continue to repeat throughout the night (or whatever period set aside for sleep), sometimes up to one hundred times or more, resulting in a series of potentially hazardous conditions that greatly reduce quality of life. Some of these include diabetes and weight gain, increased anxiety, and difficulty concentrating. Cardiovascular health, including irregular heartbeat and high blood pressure, also worsen as a result of sleep apnea. In addition, a host of other devastating issues that may also occur.
When people with sleep apnea stop breathing during sleep, it results in lower oxygen levels in the bloodstream. This is intermittent hypoxia. Recent studies have shown that these decreases in oxygen may promote growth of existing cancer cells. In fact, health.usnews.com shared that a study published in CHEST (a peer reviewed scholarly journal covering chest diseases and other related issues) in 2016 found that “in mice that had both lung tumors and sleep apnea, ‘the tumor proliferated faster and was much more aggressive locally’…”. Apparently, these instances of intermittent hypoxia cause cancer cells to emit small spheres, encompassing molecules that promote cancer growth. These spheres then travel to neighboring tissues, releasing their contents and encouraging proliferation of cancer.
These spheres, called exosomes, grow exponentially when restricting oxygen in mice with lung cancer. Since exosomes are cells that “share” information with other cells in the body, cancer cells were also shown to increase. More cancer cells mean that they cover more area in the body, increasing the likelihood that the cancer will spread. Harvested exosomes were placed in a dish in the lab with other cells, those cells also took on cancerous properties. The next step was determining the effects of the exosomes on humans with sleep apnea that also had lung cancer.
Researchers found that once the human lung cancer cells were exposed to the exosomes, the cancer cells were able to divide at a rapid rate and also move around much faster. The exosomes lost their cancer boosting power, though, with treatment of the patient’s sleep apnea. This is excellent news, since there happen to be several available treatment options for sleep apnea.
Other studies also show the link between sleep apnea and lung cancer. Over three hundred cohorts from the Sleep Apnea in Lung Cancer (SAIL) study, conducted to examine the possible connection between lung cancer and sleep apnea and the SAILS (Sleep Apnea in Lung Cancer Screening) study, which examined the possible connection between sleep apnea and lung cancer screening candidates, were studied. Docwirenews.com reports that “The prevalence of sleep apnea and lung cancer in the combined cohort was 42% and 21%, respectively”. The final conclusion was that “Sleep apnea and nocturnal hypoxemia are associated with an increased prevalence of lung cancer”.
Since treating sleep apnea appears to lower the risk of lung cancer growth, it’s even more important than ever for people who suffer from sleep apnea to be fully aware of their treatment options. One of the most well-known options is the Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) device. This works by the use of a a mask that the patient wears over their nose and sometimes mouth. The mask connects to a plastic tube which then also connects to a machine. Pressurized air blows through the tube while the patient sleeps, thereby keeping the airway open.
Surgery is another option for sleep apnea relief. However, it is generally for more severe cases and as a last resort. This works by a surgeon attempting to surgically alter any areas contributing to the airway obstruction. This can be difficult to manage, and sometimes requires several smaller surgeries, rather than one larger surgery. Unfortunately, in many cases, surgery doesn’t actually provide a long term solution to the problem and can result in complications and long recovery times.
Another option for the treatment of sleep apnea involves the use of oral appliances. These provide a unique alternative for people who cannot tolerate CPAP therapy and do not meet the qualifications for surgery, or otherwise choose not to have it.
Oral appliance therapy works with the use of an appliance worn in the patient’s mouth during sleep. It is similar in many ways to a protective mouth guard that athletes use. It works by supporting the mouth in a slightly forward position, thereby keeping the airway open during sleep. They are comfortable to wear, less risky and more affordable than surgery. As an bonus, insurance typically covers these devices. Even better, they are easily portable and don’t require the frequent purchasing of replacement parts in the form of masks and hoses that CPAP users experience. A dentist specializing in sleep therapy can help, but you can start by asking your family dentist or physician for a referral if you are unsure who to call.
Sleep apnea is a serious condition that, if left untreated, can cause extreme consequences for those that suffer from it. Now that the increased risk of lung cancer has also been associated with sleep apnea, it is even more imperative to find a treatment solution that works for you.
To learn more about using oral appliance therapy to treat your sleep apnea, please contact Mark Levy DDS at (614) 777-7350 today. Our experienced staff can answer all of your questions and help determine whether oral appliance therapy is the right choice for you.