Can you barely remember the last time you had a good night’s sleep? Do you wake up exhausted every morning without knowing why? You might be a victim of obstructive sleep apnea. This silent disease interferes with normal, deep breathing during sleep. Your breathing may become shallow or stop altogether for 10-20 seconds at a time due to restriction or blockage of your airway. This disruption can occur over and over – sometimes more than 30 times in a single hour. That’s not enough to suffocate you, but it is enough to signal your brain about a potential threat to your survival. In response, your body moves from deep, restorative sleep into lighter “on alert” sleep to jumpstart your breathing again.

How dangerous is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is often a lifelong problem, and it’s one that may shorten your lifespan. This condition is linked to many other medical issues including heart disease (including irregular heartbeat and heart attacks), stroke, high blood pressure and diabetes. If lack of sleep makes you fall asleep at the wheel, apnea could be fatal for you and for those around you.

I think I have sleep apnea. How can I know for sure?

Many sufferers first find out about this problem from whoever is sharing their bed (since their partner is also being deprived of a good night’s sleep). They may mention symptoms like:

  • Loud, persistent snoring
  • Pauses in breathing
  • Partial waking with choking or snorting sounds
  • A tendency to snore more in one position than in another

You may feel the effects of sleep apnea such as:

  • Being tired all day even if you sleep late or take naps
  • A bad mood, depression or mood swings
  • Dry mouth in the morning
  • Headaches upon waking
  • Waking over and over during the night
  • A tendency to bite your tongue or the inside of your cheek in your sleep

The most accurate way to diagnose sleep apnea is in a sleep laboratory where you are monitored throughout the night. This gives your doctor information about the type of sleep apnea you have and its severity.

Why do I have sleep apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea (the most common kind) is most commonly associated with:

  • Being significantly overweight
  • Smoking
  • Increasing age
  • A receding chin
  • Swollen or enlarged tonsils, adenoids or other structures in the throat
  • A deviated septum (crooked cartilage in your nose)
  • Nasal congestion
  • Substances like alcohol, sedatives and sleeping pills that make the throat muscles relax too much during sleep

Are there non-invasive treatment options for sleep apnea?

Yes, most patients with sleep apnea can be treated with non-invasive therapies. In fact, once you are diagnosed, your chances of receiving effective treatment are very high. One part of treatment involves making lifestyle changes or getting treatment for medical conditions that may be affecting your ability to breathe. This includes things like losing weight, stopping smoking, treating allergies to keep nasal passageways open and changing sleeping positions. For some people, side sleeping or sleeping propped partly upright is all it takes to resolve mild sleep apnea. Others benefit from wearing a mouth guard that moves the jaw and/or tongue forward slightly to open up the airway.

If you need additional medical treatment for moderate-to-severe apnea, this may involve supplemental oxygen or the use of a sleep mask called a CPAP. The Continuous Positive Airflow Pressure mask directs a steady, gentle flow of air down your airway to keep it open at night. Work with your doctor to make sure the mask fits properly or it will be ineffective and uncomfortable. Even when it’s working right, this device takes some getting used to. However, you’ll appreciate being able to sleep soundly and wake up well rested again.

Can surgery fix sleep apnea?

In some cases, surgery is an appropriate treatment for sleep apnea that does not respond to non-invasive therapies. Surgeries may include:

  • Tonsillectomy or removal of other tissues (such as the uvula) in the back of the throat
  • Insertion of threads in the soft palate to reduce vibration
  • Rhinoplasty to correct a deviated septum
  • Jaw surgery to reposition or reshape the jaw
  • Surgery to reposition the tongue

These surgeries vary in complexity and each one comes with the risk of complications. It’s best to try non-surgical options first.