Does Everyone in Your Family Have Sleep Apnea?

February 10, 2010

More and more often, I'm coming across entire family members that are on CPAP for sleep apnea, or undergoing various other treatments for this condition. If one parent has sleep apnea, your children have an increased risk of developing sleep apnea, but if both parents have it, then it's safe to assume that your children will have it too, given that fact that they inherit your facial anatomy. 


As I describe in my book, Sleep, Interrupted, all modern humans are on a continuum, where we're all susceptible to breathing problems at night. Only the end extreme is called obstructive sleep apnea. Since sleep apnea is caused by narrow facial structures, young children and even infants can have it too. Many of the various childhood maladies, such as frequent colds, ear infections, bedwetting, night terrors, and even ADHD are probably related to poor breathing and inefficient sleep, aggravating inflammation in the upper airways. There's even speculation that the rate of autism increased after doctors recommended placing infants on their backs during sleep. It's not surprising then, that parents of autistic children are found to have a higher rate of obstructive sleep apnea.


Most young children are treated with tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy for their sleep apnea, and many children do very well. However, about 1/3 who undergo tonsillectomy don't improve significantly. These are the children that probably have smaller jaws. Smaller jaws leads to more reflux and inflammation, leading to enlarged tonsils, causing more frequent obstructions. In these children, rapid palatal expansion was found to be equivalent to tonsillectomy. If you combine both procedures, the results were additive.


Some young children are able to tolerate CPAP, but for most, this is not a practical option. One advantage that children have over adults is the malleability of their jaws. Orthodontics can not only help to straighten teeth, but to expand the jaws as well. Traditional orthodontic dentists tend to remove teeth to make more room for the other teeth, but that ends up making the jaws even smaller. Forward thinking orthodontists make more room for the teeth by enlarging the jaws, both in the front to back and side to side dimensions. The earlier you start, the better the long-term results. Many dentists are beginning treatment as soon as the permanent teeth have come in.


Does everyone in your family have sleep apnea? If not, do you suspect that they all do? Please describe how you're handling this situation in the comments box below.

2 Responses to “Does Everyone in Your Family Have Sleep Apnea?”

  1. Sara on February 11th, 2010 6:37 am

    I was FINALLY diagnosed with UARS more than a year ago (I am a chronic tongue thruster).  My husband was diagnosed with UARS last year (he is a tongue thruster).  My eighteen year old daughter has a long list of symptoms frequently associated with UARS, and before heading off to college I tried to get her assessed…eventually she did get a sleep study, and it did not show UARS or OSA.  She is a tongue thruster.  Oh, and by the way, my fifteen year old son is a tongue thruster (lightest sleeper in the world), as well as my 12 year old daughter (the tongue thrusting also results in a speech impairment in her case).  Hmmmm….
    Intervention for tongue thrusting in the children was initiated by the perfectionistic orthodontist who wants his work expedited and maintained…or by the speech pathologist (the youngest has a speech impairment).  However, no one seems to care to address WHY they are tongue thrusting or to consider that training the tongue to be positioned backward might actually aggravate an underlying problem?
    So, we have this hereditary factor, but intervention is not likely until there is a full-blown health crisis.  Who can we turn to?  What would you do?

  2. julie on February 15th, 2010 9:17 pm

    I was diagnosed with OSA 2.5 years ago, and have had significant improvement with CPAP.  I went for my study after my mom's diagnosis – her mother had also had OSA.  Since then, both my maternal aunt and uncle have also been diagnosed.  I'm sure there are other people in my family who need a sleep study and treatment as well.

    I'm most concerned now about my daughter who just turned 7.  She snores already and had tubes when she was 11 months old.  She's also had a problem with teeth grinding  for years now.  My youngest is starting to snore and grind teeth as well.  I just don't see CPAP as an alternative for my girls, but I want them to have the healthiest sleep possible as they grow and develop.

    I've talked to my current dentist about dental work, but he's not familiar with the techniques.  Should I look for a different dentist, or is there literature out there I could share with my dentist?  (He'd be open to looking at that for this issue.)   Is there a standard technique for this, or is it different for each child?

    I wore a saggital appliance on my upper teeth as part of my dental work which spread my palate about twice as wide as it was.  This seems to have aggravated my TMJ and I worry about long term effects of early orthodontic intervention.  Are there any long-term studies about the dental techniques that are employed for the purpose of treating OSA?

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