Sleep apnea is a common medical condition that robs millions of people of quality sleep each night. Because the interruption in sleep may not wake the sufferer fully, many people with apnea aren’t aware that they even have this condition. In fact, you might go for years without being diagnosed. Sadly, it’s not possible to recover those years of lost snoozing. However, it is possible to address the fatigue and other health problems associated with chronic sleep apnea once the underlying problem has been identified. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common form of the condition. It is usually treatable and can be managed successfully on an ongoing basis.
What Is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?
Obstructive sleep apnea interferes with regular, deep breathing during sleep. If you have this condition, your breathing may become very shallow or completely stop from time to time. This occurs when your airway is restricted or blocked. The more often this happens, the greater the disruption to your sleep. It’s not unusual for apnea to make breathing stop for 10 to 20 seconds at a stretch. These episodes may occur many times in a row – more than 30 times in an hour in some cases. Each time your breathing is impaired, your body attempts to rouse itself so you can return to normal breathing. You generally don’t wake all the way up when this happens. Instead, you shift to a lighter level of sleep to trigger your breathing reflex. Unfortunately, this means you don’t spend enough time in the deep, restorative sleep your body and mind need for you to feel refreshed and rested the next day. Instead, you wake up feeling tired.
Why Does Obstructive Sleep Apnea Happen?
There are a number of issues that can cause obstruction of the airway and impede nighttime breathing. Any or all of these may be the underlying cause of your sleep apnea. During your waking hours, your body naturally keeps your airway open. However, the muscles in your throat relax when you fall asleep. If the structure or position of the various tissues around your airway is abnormal, this can create a temporary blockage. High body weight, enlarged tonsils, a receding chin or a deviated septum are all physical conditions that can interfere with normal breathing during sleep. Other factors that may make you prone to sleep apnea include:
- Increased age
- Allergies or other medical conditions that cause nasal congestion
- Sedatives and relaxants such as alcohol or sleeping pills
How Is Sleep Apnea Diagnosed?
The signs and symptoms of sleep apnea are subtle at first. If you share a bedroom with someone else, they may notice the problem before you do. That’s because OSA is usually accompanied by loud, irregular breathing, snoring and snorting sounds. Your partner may notice that you tend to snore when you are in a particular position, such as on your back. Or they may hear you pause while breathing and then suddenly make a choking sound and start breathing again. If your partner complains about your snoring, don’t ignore this! It’s bad for your relationship and bad for your health.
You may notice a number of warning signs that your sleep quality is being impaired by apnea. These can include:
- Fatigue no matter how late you sleep or whether you take a nap during the day
- Frequent headaches, especially upon waking
- Irritability or changes in mood
- Morning dry mouth (from sleeping with your mouth partly open)
- Recurrent episodes of wakefulness during the night
- Accidentally biting your cheek or tongue in your sleep
These sleep apnea symptoms can be confirmed by a sleep study. This kind of study is carried out in a “sleep laboratory” where your breathing is monitored and tracked throughout the night. This monitoring gives your doctor the opportunity to verify:
- How many times you stop breathing in an hour
- How long you stop breathing before you rouse enough to restart respiration
- What positions are associated with apnea for you
- When during your sleep/dream cycle you tend to experience apnea episodes
- Whether you have obstructive sleep apnea or the more serious central apnea
Problems Sleep Apnea Cause
Besides leaving you feeling fatigued, apnea is associated with many chronic health problems such as:
- Persistent headaches
- Heart disease (irregular heartbeat and heart attacks)
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Depression and mood swings
These issues can shorten your lifespan and decrease your quality of life. Sleep deprivation from chronic apnea can also be fatal if you accidentally fall asleep while driving.
Effective Sleep Apnea Treatments
There are a number of different non-invasive options for sleep apnea treatment. Depending on the underlying cause of your sleep disorder, your doctor may advise:
- Weight loss
- Smoking cessation
- Allergy medication or nasal decongestants
- Changes in sleep position (sleeping on your side may help)
- Wearing a mouth guard that repositions your jaw and/or tongue forward during sleep to prevent airway restriction
If your apnea does not respond to these lifestyle changes or therapies, you may be a candidate for a CPAP device. A Continuous Positive Airflow Pressure mask gently pushes air down your throat while you sleep. This gentle flow of air prevents your airway from being obstructed even when the muscles in your throat relax. A properly fitted CPAP device should not be uncomfortable – although it will take a while for you to get used to wearing it while you sleep.
In rare cases, non-invasive therapies are not successful in managing sleep apnea. Surgery is a final option for these situations. An oral & maxillofacial surgeon or ENT specialist may recommend removing the tonsils, performing rhinoplasty to correct a deviated septum or surgically repositioning the jaw or tongue. These procedures are not reversible and are not guaranteed to eliminate the symptoms of sleep apnea. So, it’s a good idea to get a second opinion and try recommended non-surgical interventions first.