Don’t wait until you fall asleep behind the wheel of a moving vehicle to find out if you have sleep apnea. Discover why this diagnosis can be detrimental to your health and what options are available to treat apnea successfully.
What is sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea is a type of sleeping disorder. People with this condition repeatedly stop and then start breathing again during sleep.
During episodes of Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA), the muscles in the neck relax to the point where the airway passage becomes narrow or completely obstructed. This causes the brain to temporarily wake you up so breathing starts again.
Who is at risk?
There are a variety of estimates for the actual number of people with OSA. Most range around two percent of the population. If you experience the following symptoms, then you might be at risk for OSA:
- Excessive daytime sleepiness
- Loud snoring
- Waking up often during the night
- Headaches upon waking
- Problems focusing during the day
Otherwise, if you have a family member who has already been diagnosed with OSA, then you may be at a higher risk. Others at higher than average risk are males over the age of 60, smokers, overweight individuals and those with significant nasal congestion.
Why be concerned?
If you have experienced the above symptoms, then you may be subjecting your body to undue stress. Oxygen levels drop significantly during apnea episodes, and this strains the cardiovascular system. Consequently, these frequent periods of low oxygenation levels can lead to the development of hypertension.
Furthermore, those with moderate to severe OSA are more likely to suffer from an ischemic stroke than those without OSA. People with underlying heart disease could experience sudden cardiac arrest during multiple apnea episodes. In fact, untreated OSA also increases the risk of congestive heart failure, atrial fibrillation and vascular disease.
There are other less obvious, yet still potentially dangerous, hazards related to OSA. Common surgical procedures can quickly become complicated for anesthesiologists unaware of a patient’s OSA. Lab results related to the liver may become abnormal.
Untreated OSA often leads to excessive fatigue in the daytime, which can cause sufferers to fall asleep while driving or operating machinery. OSA can also lead to mood swings, depression, memory issues, headaches and decreased interest in sex.
Once OSA has been diagnosed, usually in a sleep lab after an overnight stay with polysomnography monitoring, there are ways to improve breathing throughout the night.
For example, those with mild OSA are encouraged to sleep on their sides instead of on their backs, which prevents the tongue and soft palate from blocking the airway. Overweight patients are instructed to lose weight in order to decrease airway constriction.
Those with moderate to severe OSA may need to use a Continuous Positive Air Pressure, or a CPAP machine. The initial adjustment period may seem uncomfortable, but the results are well worth the effort.
In conclusion, anyone experiencing the symptoms listed above needs to consult with a qualified practitioner to discover if they have Obstructive Sleep Apnea. For those with moderate to severe OSA, using a CPAP machine can greatly improve the quality of life for them and their sleeping partner!
Additional resources: American Academy of Physiological Medicine & Dentistry