Sleep apnea is associated with snoring. It has less obvious but important symptoms, too. And, left untreated, sleep apnea can have serious health consequences.
Sleep apnea affects more than 22 million Americans, according to the American Sleep Apnea Association. Although the most noticeable symptom of the condition can be heavy snoring, sleep apnea is far more serious than making annoying snorting sounds while you’re snoozing.
Sleep apnea occurs when breathing is momentarily blocked or stopped, resulting in gasping and loud snores. Because deep sleep is interrupted, people with sleep apnea often feel short of breath when they wake up during the night. When they rise in the morning, sleep apnea sufferers can feel exhausted, like they hardly slept at all.
They often suffer from excessive daytime sleepiness, headaches, memory problems, and difficulty concentrating. What’s more, untreated sleep apnea raises the risk for serious and even life-threatening health problems.
However, there’s good news. Depending on what is causing sleep apnea, treatment can lead to dramatic improvements in the quality of life for many people.
Types of sleep apnea
The American Sleep Apnea Association describes obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) as a type of “mechanical” problem in the body. While a person with OSA sleeps, his or her tongue falls backwards, pushing the soft palate and the uvula (the flap of tissue hanging down at the edge of the soft palate) against the back of their throat. The result is interrupted breathing as the airway closes, and the person with sleep apnea snorts and gasps to reopen the airway.
Central sleep apnea occurs when the brain fails to send strong signals to muscles needed to breathe, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) explains. This results in repeated episodes of breathing, which stop and start multiple times during sleep.
Central sleep apnea is less common than obstructive sleep apnea and is not caused by upper airway obstruction like OSA. Instead, it is often the result of other medical conditions, and treating those existing health problems may improve or relieve the condition.
Sleep apnea risk factors and medical causes
The cause of sleep apnea, isn’t one single thing.
There are many risk factors for sleep apnea, and some can’t be changed. For example, men are more likely to have the condition than women — at least, until they reach their senior years, then both genders have about the same risk. In fact, growing older increases the risk for sleep apnea due to age-related changes in how the brain controls breathing and the fact more fatty tissue builds up in the neck and the tongue as we get older, the NHLBI explains. You also can’t change your family history, and sleep apnea seems to “run” in some families.
Sleep apnea can be caused by a person’s physical structure or several medical conditions, too, including large tonsils, genetic syndromes marked by smaller than normal facial bones or the tongue located unusually far back in the mouth, and certain hormone and neuromuscular disorders. Advanced heart or kidney failure can cause obstructive sleep apnea due to airway obstructing fluid build-up in the neck associated with these conditions. Stroke, post-polio syndrome, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (or ALS) are some of the medical conditions that can result in central sleep apnea.
However, most people have important risk factors for sleep apnea they can change if they develop a healthy lifestyle. Being overweight or obese significantly increases your risk for the condition, and getting and keeping weight under control can help you avoid or improve sleep apnea.
Drinking alcohol can increase relaxation of mouth and throat muscles, closing the upper airway and interfering with how the brain controls sleep and the muscles involved in breathing. So, avoiding excess alcohol and abstaining from drinking several hours before you go to bed is advisable.
If you need another reason to stop smoking, consider this: Smoking often results in inflammation of the upper airway, affecting breathing and how the brain controls sleep, resulting in sleep apnea.
Take sleep apnea seriously
If you suspect you may have sleep apnea — or your spouse or partner complains you snore and gasp for air while sleeping — talk to your doctor. If it appears you may have the condition, a sleep study will be ordered.
For this diagnostic test, you’ll spend the night in a special sleep lab while a technician records the number of episodes of slow or stopped breathing you may experience per hour. Oxygen levels in the blood and your heart rate are also checked during sleep apnea events to see if oxygen drops significantly. The test will also monitor your brain activity.
Treatment for sleep apnea includes using a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine or supplemental oxygen and treating any existing medical conditions. Losing excess weight, getting regular physical activity, and avoiding cigarettes and excess alcohol are obviously important, too.
Left untreated, sleep apnea raises your risk for stroke, heart disease, atrial fibrillation, type 2 diabetes, asthma, and even certain cancers. That’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges everyone with sleep apnea to take their diagnosis seriously and work with their doctor to control and improve the condition.
June 12, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN