What is sleep apnea?
During normal sleep, the soft tissue in the back of your throat relaxes. If you have sleep apnea, this soft tissue collapses so much that your throat gets blocked and stops you from breathing from 10 seconds to over a minute. The oxygen level in your blood drops, making your brain wake up and signal your throat muscles to open up your airway. You snort or gasp and breathe again.
This cycle can repeat itself as often as 50 or more times per hour for people who have sleep apnea. You may never know it’s happening because you don’t fully wake up, but your sleep is constantly interrupted. You don’t get a good rest with normal REM sleep cycles, so you’re tired during the day.
It may not be just your sleep that’s interrupted. Since virtually everyone with sleep apnea snores (usually loudly), someone in the same room with you may hear you snore and notice that you sometimes stop breathing and then snort or gasp.
Most people with sleep apnea don’t know they have it. It’s estimated that 12 to 25 million people have it, but only 1 million have been diagnosed.
What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?
The two most common symptoms are extreme sleepiness during the day (sufferers often fall asleep without meaning to) and snoring that is loud and interrupted. (Although many people who snore do not have sleep apnea, virtually everyone with sleep apnea snores.)
Many sleep apnea people have high blood pressure or other cardiovascular conditions, morning headaches, memory problems, depression, heartburn or GERD, impotence, or an excessive need to urinate during the night.
Children can have sleep apnea, too. Their symptoms may include sleeping longer hours than usual, hyperactivity, irritability, other behavior problems, bed-wetting, morning headaches, not growing or gaining weight normally, or struggling to breathe while sleeping.
Why is it so serious?
Sleep apnea is linked to many of the most severe health conditions, psychological problems, and accidents:
- Driving sleepy is as dangerous as driving drunk. Driving tired causes about 200,000 accidents and 1,500 deaths every year. People with sleep apnea have 2 to 3 times more car accidents than those without it. Doing other things when you’re tired can be risky, too.
- Sleep apnea is linked with a higher risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, heart failure, weight gain, diabetes, glaucoma, irregular menstrual periods, kidney failure, and depression.
- The noisy snoring and fatigue that both partners may suffer from one person’s sleep apnea can be tough on relationships.
What are the risk factors for sleep apnea?
Risk factors are associations–links–not necessarily proven causes. For instance, we know that obesity is common in people with sleep apnea. But experts think that sleep disorder might sometimes cause obesity rather than the other way around.
- Being overweight
- Smoking or alcohol use
- Family history of sleep apnea
- A large neck, long lower face, narrow upper jaw, receding chin, overbite, large tongue, or soft palate that is longer or stiffer than normal
- Sleep apnea is more common in males than females, in older people than younger, and African-Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Mexicans than in other ethnic groups
You don’t have to have all these risk factors to have sleep apnea. For instance, plenty of thin people have it, too.
How is sleep apnea diagnosed?
Your health care provider will ask you about your symptoms and health history. You may be rated on a scale that determines your level of daytime drowsiness. A physical exam of your throat and nasal passages can reveal physical characteristics common to people with the disorder.
Also, there are diagnostic tests that can be done while you sleep. You might go to a clinic for an overnight sleep study to measure your heart rate, brain waves, chest movement, and blood oxygen levels. Or your provider might send you home with a device that can monitor your breathing or the blood flow at your fingertips while you sleep.
How is sleep apnea treated?
It depends on how severe your sleep apnea is. The first line of defense for adults is to avoid sleeping on your back. Sleeping on your side has been shown to reduce apnea and snoring dramatically. Some people sew a ball onto the back of their pajama shirt to help stop them from rolling onto their backs.
Select pillows that position the neck correctly to help some folks.
Overweight people with sleep apnea often find their symptoms decrease if they lose weight. Sleeping upright can help them, too. Quitting smoking and not drinking for 4 hours before bedtime are recommended for everyone. Some medications can help sleep apnea while others–sedatives, sleeping pills, and tranquilizers–worsens the condition and should be avoided.
There are several treatments for more severe sleep apnea, including surgery, dental appliances that you put in your mouth at night, and a CPAP machine that pushes air into you hard enough to keep your airway open while you sleep.
Keep breathing at night. See your health care provider if you have signs of this severe and treatable disorder.