By Alexander Germanis
We spend a third of our lives sleeping. In fact, we engage in sleep more than we engage in any other single activity. So, it is safe to say sleep serves an extremely vital role in our health — physical, mental, and emotional.
Unfortunately, there are several sleep disorders that can reduce the effectiveness of the sleep we get, which can detrimentally affect the other two-thirds of our lives. Although there are such disorders as temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD), restless leg syndrome, and obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) — one of the most common of the sleep disorders.
As these disorders can cause serious disorder to the rest of our lives, Dr. Rod Willey of the Koala Center for Sleep Disorders in Dunlap devoted his life to alleviating them. He is pleased his son, Brockton Willey, DDS, D.ASBA, is joining the practice full time, continuing what is now a family tradition of fighting these disorders in order to bring restful, healthy sleep back to the people in their care.
Continuing the fight
A native of Peoria, Dr. Brockton Willey first followed in his father’s footsteps at the tender age of 10, performing his first tooth extraction during a mission to the Dominican Republic. Six years later, he began spending his summers working as a dental laboratory technician. He later attended Andrews University before graduating from the Loma Linda University School of Dentistry in 2015.
The correlation between dentistry and sleep medicine is a strong one, so Dr. Willey pursued his education in dental sleep medicine and orofacial pain disorders, receiving his diplomate from the American Sleep and Breathing Academy.
His interest in the field is not just about joining the family business, however.
“We had a close family friend who we knew for years; he was like an uncle to me,” Dr. Willey shares. “He had a heart attack in his sleep; basically, he died of sleep apnea. When you think of how life threatening it is and when you have loved ones who suffer from this — that they have the potential of dying in their sleep — you think, I can do something about it, I can treat them. So, I’m very passionate about sleep apnea.”
What is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?
“Apnea, by definition, is the temporary cessation of breathing, especially during sleep,” Dr. Willey explains. “OSA is a condition characterized by the complete or partial airway obstruction.”
This obstruction occurs when the muscles in the back of the throat relax and the tongue and lower jaw fall back. One or all of these can combine to close the airway, making breathing difficult. Dr. Willey describes it as trying to breathe through a straw.
“The typical sequence of OSA occurs when a person starts snoring,” Dr. Willey continues. “After that loud snore, there might be a slight silent period when they have literally stopped breathing. The body’s oxygen level then drops, the blood pressure rises, and the heart is forced to beat faster because it needs to keep up with the body’s demand for oxygen.”
At this point, the brain often triggers a snort, snore, gasp, or causes the body to jerk itself awake, in order to force a normal pattern of breathing to resume. Once one falls asleep again, the entire cycle continues, sometimes hundreds of times per night, causing a person to only get restless fragments of sleep and often feeling just as tired and worn as they did before they went to bed.
Dangers of OSA
Restlessness as a result of sleep apnea is simply the beginning of a cascade effect. “The biggest complaint I hear is of daytime fatigue,” Dr. Willey says. “The repeated awakenings make that normal reparative and restorative sleep impossible. The fatigue can cause irritability; you may feel quick-tempered, moody, or depressed. Some people find it difficult to concentrate; they fall asleep at work, while watching TV, even while driving. Children and adolescents with sleep apnea tend to perform more poorly in school and have behavioral issues.”
There is also an increased risk of workplace and motor vehicle accidents. In short, the doctor says, OSA makes going through a normal day or even having a normal life more difficult.
A key component of the cascade effect is stress. Interrupted sleep stresses the body at a time when it is supposed to be recuperating from the stresses of the day. This shifts the hormonal systems into overdrive. Blood pressure is, in-turn, affected, which then increases the risk of heart disease, which then makes one more susceptible to heart attack and stroke.
“There’s also a correlation between sleep apnea and metabolic disorders: diabetes, weight gain, weight loss,” Dr. Willey states. “When you’re not getting enough sleep, you’re messing with your body’s insulin production: you’re not producing it; you’re not using it properly.” A lack of energy, of course, means someone is less likely to have the energy or drive to exercise, which only adds to metabolic problems.
Who does OSA affect?
Although sleep apnea can affect anyone at any age, being overweight, or being over the age of 40 will put one at greater risk. Males are also more likely to have it. A larger neck circumference — 17 inches or greater for males, 16 inches or greater for females — is also a factor.
The doctor continues: “Having large tonsils, a large tongue, a small jawbone, having a family history of sleep apnea, having gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a nasal obstruction like a deviated septum, having asthma, allergies, and sinus problems all mean a higher risk.”
“When you go through the list, it can affect basically everybody,” he states simply. “It doesn’t matter who you are — if you’re young, old, big, or small. Tiger Woods was just diagnosed with it, and it contributed to Carrie Fisher’s death. It can affect anybody.”
“Approximately 17 percent of Americans — that’s about 51 million people — have some sort of sleep disorder,” Dr. Willey says. “But it’s estimated that many go undiagnosed.”
“So, if you experience any of the symptoms: snoring, fitful sleep, high blood pressure, daytime drowsiness, etc., it is very important to get in and get checked,” the doctor continues. “Once we complete a consultation, we work together with your physician each step of the way.”
The good thing about OSA is that it can be treated very effectively and in a variety of ways.
Surgery and Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) are both options to combat OSA. “Another option,” Dr. Willey says, “is the comfortable alternative to the CPAP. It is a custom-made OSA appliance, similar to a sports mouth guard and has proven to be equally effective with the CPAP for mild and moderate cases. It is FDA approved, and most patients find it to be more comfortable and easier to use. That’s what we do.”
“The appliance works by holding the lower jaw in a position that allows the airway to remain as open and rigid as possible during sleep.” he explains. “OSA appliances are custom made, non-invasive, no electricity needed, and easy to use. The appliance is covered by most medical insurance plans and Medicare.”
Dr. Willey adjusts the appliance as necessary to ensure it will perform its function properly. A patient then reports back to the office for these adjustments until the symptoms of OSA subside.
“Patients have a diagnostic sleep test done, and if sleep apnea is confirmed to be a problem, we place the OSA appliance and find the optimal position for it,” the doctor says. The patient then comes back for follow-up visits once every six months for the first year and once a year after that.
Losing weight and lifestyle changes are other ways to reduce one’s risk of OSA. Surgery is also an option, during which the adenoids, tonsils, and the uvula are removed in order to create space in the airway. However, the non-invasive methods are extremely effective and eliminate any of the risk factors associated with surgery.
A passionate desire to help
Dr. Willey understands how common it is for people who may suffer from sleep apnea to actually be embarrassed they have it. Although there are risk factors, he wants to make it clear that anyone can have it. “It doesn’t matter who you are, it can affect you,” he says. “You can be the most healthy athlete and still have it. The risks of going untreated are serious and can be life threatening — from heart attacks to strokes to not being able to reach your desired weight.”
If your concern for yourself is not enough, the doctor says, then consider how untreated OSA can affect others. “You can hurt the ones you love,” he says. “Does your partner suffer from insufficient sleep because of the loud snoring, the gasping, the stopped breathing or do you worry about what the condition does to your health?”
Dr. Willey does not want any of his patients to go through what he and his family went through when they lost their friend because he truly cares for his patients. “I think of them like family,” he says, “and this is a serious disease, so I don’t take it lightly.” If you suffer from sleep apnea or know someone who does, Dr. Willey does not want you to take it lightly either. It could save a life.
For more information on the treatment for obstructive sleep apnea, please contact Dr. Brock or Dr. Rod Willey at Koala Center for Sleep Disorders. Call 309-323-8089 or visit www.peoriasleep.com to schedule an appointment today.