The History of Sleep Apnea: Why Am I Just Hearing About It Now?

August 22, 2018

is one of the most common sleeping disorders in the entire world, but most people have only heard of it within the past couple of years. Does this mean that it’s strictly a problem for the 21st century? That couldn’t be farther from the truth! Historical records show that symptoms that sound like obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) have actually been observed for nearly 2,000 years. Fortunately, since then, the understanding of what sleep apnea is and how to treat it has dramatically improved, enabling sufferers to rest easy and safeguard their health.

Pickwickian Syndrome

If you’re a reader of Charles Dickens, then this syndrome might sound somewhat familiar.

This was actually what doctors called sleep apnea until the late 20th century. Throughout the 1800s, doctors lumped together various sleep apnea symptoms and named the condition “Pickwickian Syndrome,” derived from Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, in which an overweight character named Joe exhibits very obvious signs of what would eventually be known as sleep apnea.

Initially, the condition was solely attributed to excess body fat. While being overweight is certainly a large contributing factor to sleep apnea, modern studies have shown that it isn’t the only cause. Factors such as having a large tongue, thick neck, nasal blockage, or large tonsils/adenoids can also lead to a person developing sleep apnea.

Coming into the Modern Age

In the 1950s and 1960s, researchers decided to take a deeper look at sleep apnea, eventually discovering that the problem was actually due to a person not breathing properly during sleep.

Sleep apnea research really intensified in the 1970s, with dogs being the initial test subjects for proposed treatments. To help get around the blockage in the throat, the primary treatment was…a tracheotomy! This approach was even used on humans at the time. It sounds kind of crazy today, but doctors back then literally had no other options, so they figured going around a compromised airway was the best route to recovery.

Sleep Apnea Treatment of Today

Eventually, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Colin Sullivan developed what would eventually become the go-to treatment for sleep apnea: the continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. It uses a facial mask connected to an air pump to constantly deliver oxygen to the body throughout the night, keeping the airway open as a result. Sullivan’s same basic concept is still used today to help millions of people get the rest they need.

However, the CPAP machine isn’t perfect, as many patients find it extremely uncomfortable and loud, causing many to simply stop using it. Eventually, doctors, specifically dentists, began offering a more conservative treatment called oral appliance therapy, in which the airway is kept open using a small, custom-made mouthpiece. This was found to be an ideal approach for those with mild to moderate sleep apnea, and today, it is used around the world to help patients with the condition.

What This Teaches Us

While sleep apnea itself might not be a new condition, medical science has fairly recently brought us a variety of treatment options that are clinically proven to help. So now, if a patient believes they might be suffering from sleep apnea, they can simply consult their doctor, and they’ll likely be able to get the solution they need, leading to many restful nights for years to come.

About the Author

Dr. Kenneth Mogell is a certified sleep dentist who has been serving Florida for more than 30 years. At his practice, he provides custom-made oral appliances for snoring and sleep apnea treatment and can help patients get sleep testing in Jupiter so that everyone is able to enjoy a full night’s rest. To learn more about sleep apnea, how you can get tested for it, or which treatment might be best for you, he can be contacted through his website.