What is Sleep Apnea and what are the symptoms & treatments?
Sleep apnea is a serious medical condition that can have significant impacts on your health and quality of life. The first sign that you might suffer from sleeping apnea is usually loud snoring that keeps everyone awake!
You might only suffer from snoring however (it might not be sleeping apnea) – so don’t worry just yet, because there are other signs of sleep apnea that need to be in place as well, before a correct diagnosis can be given.
Essentially, the more common form of sleeping apnea is when you stop breathing for 10 seconds or more during sleep. The part of your brain that controls breathing then registers that you have stopped breathing and stimulates you – so that you wake to take a breath.
Even though they can stop breathing more than 30 times an hour and hundreds of time each night, many suffers don’t actually realize that they have a problem. The first signs are usually that they feel extremely tired during the day or that their partner has noticed that they stop breathing!
A recent US study into the prevalence of sleep apnea found that it affects around 30% of men and 20% of women, so its a fairly common disorder. What actually happens with the more common type of sleeping apnea is that the upper airways completely or partially collapse when you sleep, obstructing your airways and blocking the flow of air. It can however, also be due to your brain ‘forgetting’ to breathe – but this is far less common.
Types of Sleep Apnea
There are two different types of sleeping apnea with entirely different causes: obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. There is also a third type of sleeping apnea that is considered to be a mix of these two types.
Obstructive sleep apnea: This is where your upper airways collapse and either completely or partially obstruct your airways, preventing air from reaching your lungs. This is the most common form of sleeping apnea (more than 80% of sufferers have obstructive sleep apnea) and is often accompanied by loud snoring as the narrowed airways vibrate.
Central sleep apnea: Instead of your airways being blocked, central sleep apnea occurs because your brain ‘forgets’ to tell you to breath. Essentially, your brain’s respiratory centre doesn’t work correctly and you stop breathing, even though your airways might be fine and unobstructed. Unfortunately, snoring isn’t often a symptom of central sleep apnea, so it often isn’t noticed; when it is diagnosed, it tends to occur in about 10% of sleeping apnea sufferers.
Symptoms of Sleep Apnea
With obstructive sleep apnea, some of the first signs are very loud snoring, frequent loud gasps for air as the sufferer is jolted awake to take a breath, poor quality sleep and extreme tiredness during the day. Headaches are also common in the early mornings, as is a feeling of irritability and a lowered sex drive.
The symptoms of central sleep apnea are similar to obstructive sleep apnea, but can also include chest pain at night and shortness of breath that is relieved by sitting up in bed.
Risk Factors for Sleep Apnea
Two of the biggest risk factors for obstructive sleeping apnea are being overweight (BMI > 30) and middle age (older than 45 years of age). The older you become, the more likely it is that you might suffer from sleeping apnea and the more weight you carry, the more likely it is that your airways can become obstructed when you sleep.
Narrowed upper airways, a recessed chin, family history of sleep apnea, large tonsils or adenoids, alcohol and sedatives can all result in obstructive sleeping apnea. You are also at risk of sleeping apnea if you suffer from heart disease or type 2 diabetes.
Central sleeping apnea is more likely in people who have a brain stem injury (strokes or brain tumours), chronic respiratory conditions, congestive heart failure or atrial fibrillation.
Diagnosing Sleep Apnea
Obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea are diagnosed using a variety of sleep studies by your health professional. The number of times you stop breathing each hour is recorded and the oxygen levels in your blood are monitored to see if these drop every time you stop breathing.
The severity of your sleeping apnea is determined by how often you stop breathing during a sleep cycle:
5 to 14 events per hour is considered to be mild sleep apnea.
15 to 29 events per hour is considered to be moderate sleep apnea.
30 or more events per hour is considered to be severe sleep apnea.
Treatment for Sleeping Apnea
There are a number of ways you can approach the treatment of sleeping apnea and your physician will point you in the right direction. In general, there are eleven different treatments available for sleep apnea and you might need to incorporate more than one into your life to relieve your condition.
1. Maintain a healthy diet.
2. Take regular physical exercise.
3. Lose weight and maintain a healthy weight for your size.
4. Develop healthy sleeping habits.
5. Stop smoking and cut down on alcohol.
6. Use a CPAP breathing machine to keep breathing at night.
7. Wear a mouthpiece that holds your jaw in position to maintain your airways.
8. Wear a mouthpiece that prevents your tongue from blocking your airways.
9. Implants to help stimulate specific nerves to keep your airways open.
10. Orofacial therapy to improve positioning and strengthen the muscles of your tongue and soft palate.
11. Surgery to remove your tonsils or adenoids or to re-position your jaw.
Benefits of Treating Sleep Apnea
Treating sleeping apnea has certain benefits as you can imagine. These include a reduced chance of suffering a stroke or heart attack, better control of type 2 diabetes, longer lifespan and less likelihood of accidents due to tiredness, inattention and a lack of concentration.
When you successfully treat your sleep apnea, you will feel more energetic during the daytime, banish the morning headaches and relieve the snoring that keeps everyone else awake!
Untreated Sleeping Apnea
Ignoring sleeping apnea and not bothering to follow up on any symptoms you might have, such as severe snoring, episodes of not breathing and then gasping for breath during the night, tiredness during the day or morning headaches can lead to a number of serious health consequences.
These problems include ongoing severe tiredness, increased blood pressure and heart rate, poor liver function and changes in your metabolism.
If you believe that you might be suffering from sleeping apnea, it’s best if you make an appointment with your health professional ASAP.