Why is your snoring a problem?
When you hear the term sleep apnea, you probably think of someone who snores loudly at night. Sure, this is annoying, especially for family members, but it can be a serious medical problem. How do you know if you have sleep apnea? What can you do to treat or prevent it?
Sleep apnea is when you repeatedly stop and start breathing while you’re sleeping. There are three main types classified by their cause. Obstructive is the most common type and occurs when the muscles in the back of your throat relax causing your soft palate, uvula, tonsils, tongue and side walls of your throat to come closer together resulting in a narrowed opening for air to pass through when you breathe. For some people, the opening actually closes completely. Due to the restriction or lack of air flow, the oxygen level in your blood dips. Your brain senses this and briefly awakens you so that you can reopen your airway. Usually, you’re not aware of this and don’t remember being woken up. If someone is nearby while you’re sleeping, they might say that you snort, gasp or choke throughout the night. This pattern repeats all night long, sometimes more than 30 times in an hour. Your body is unable to get the deep, restful sleep that it needs. Central sleep apnea is less common and is when your brain doesn’t send signals to your breathing muscles meaning you don’t breathe for short periods of time. Complex is a combination of the two. Regardless of the cause, the symptoms are the same. Loud snoring is a symptom, but not always present. If you gasp for air while sleeping, wake up with a dry mouth, have a headache in the morning, experience insomnia, have excessive daytime sleepiness, difficulty paying attention, fatigue or irritability, then you might have sleep apnea. If family members tell you that you stop breathing at night, this is also a sign.
Anyone, even children, can have sleep apnea. The risk factors for developing it are different for each type. For obstructive, if you’re overweight, have a thicker neck, narrowed airway opening, are male, are elderly, have a family history of sleep apnea, smoke, use alcohol/sedatives/tranquilizers or have chronic nasal congestion, you are at increased risk. For central, if you’re male, elderly, have a heart condition, use narcotic pain medication or have a history of stroke, you are at increased risk. For complex, usually it is a combination of factors from both obstructive and central.
Complications of sleep apnea are usually daytime drowsiness, fatigue, irritability, quick-tempered, moody and depressed. All of this increase your chances of falling asleep at work, driving a car or at any point during the day. Obviously, this can be hazardous to your physical wellbeing. Also, sleep apnea has significant impact on other areas of your health. The drops in oxygen levels cause increases in your blood pressure and increase your chances of having a heart attack, stroke or abnormal heart rhythms, sometimes these are fatal. Since sleep apnea doesn’t allow you to get a good, restful sleep it doesn’t allow your body to perform certain functions that it normal does while you’re sleeping. One of the major things your body does while you’re sleeping is to regulate your glucose and insulin levels, so when it’s unable to do this because of sleep apnea, you are more likely to develop insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. These are just a few examples of the complications that can arise; there are many others.
In order to treat your sleep apnea, your doctor needs to determine which type you have. This is done using your symptoms, sleep history and diagnostic testing done either at home or, more likely, at a sleep center. For milder cases, your doctor will probably recommend lifestyle changes, like losing weight, quitting smoking and controlling your allergies. If these don’t work or you have moderate to severe sleep apnea, there are several devices that can be used or procedures that can be done. You have probably seen TV advertisements for a device called a CPAP. This is a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device, which means a machine provides air pressure that is greater than the surrounding air, so your air passages will stay open. There are many different types with a large selection of masks. So, if one doesn’t fit comfortably, be sure to keep trying until you find one that does. There are different variations to how much pressure and when it’s applied. Your doctor will help guide you in finding the one that works best for you. Some people trying using oral devices to help keep their airway open. Usually, they aren’t as effective as CPAP and work best for mild cases only. Typically, you get these devices from your dentist and need to follow up frequently to make sure the device is still fitting properly in order to guarantee you’re getting the maximum benefit. If these don’t work or your apnea is severe, your doctor may recommend surgery. There are several types, like tissue removal, tissue shrinkage, jaw repositioning, implants, nerve stimulation or creating a new air passageway, or tracheostomy. Some of these procedures are still being explored as treatment options.
Self-care and prevention of sleep apnea are basically the same. If you’re overweight, the best thing that you can do is lose weight and maintain a healthy one. Even if you’re not overweight, it’s still important to exercise for about 30 minutes most days of the week. Not smoking is essential because it significantly impacts your airway passages. Don’t sleep on your back because your tongue and soft palate are more likely to block your airway by resting on the back of your throat. Instead, sleep on your side or stomach. Avoid drinking alcohol or using medications that have sedative qualities, like tranquilizers, because they can relax the muscles in the back of your throat. This is especially important if you have any risk factors for sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea is more than just snoring. It’s something that needs to be addressed in order to prevent more serious medical complications. If you have any questions or concerns about sleep apnea, please speak with your doctor. If you would like more information, please visit the National Institute of Health’s National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute’s sleep apnea page at https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/sleep-apnea