Sleep Apnea: More than the Snore

If you snore at night, it may be more than just an annoyance. It could be a sign of sleep apnea, a serious condition that requires medical attention.

Sleep apnea: what is it?

Sleep apnea is a condition that causes you to stop and start breathing many times throughout the night. If you can’t breathe well while sleeping, your body starts losing oxygen. Your brain wakes you up urgently to take a deep breath—but only for a split second, so you usually don’t remember waking up. People with sleep apnea often don’t get quality sleep at night, and they tend to be more tired during the day.

There are two basic types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the throat muscles are too relaxed, narrowing the airway. Central sleep apnea, less common, results from a breakdown in communication between your brain and the muscles that control breathing. Patients who have both types of sleep apnea have a condition called complex sleep apnea syndrome.

Sleep apnea has many serious affects on day to day life. Severe daytime fatigue is one common complication, causing increased accidents, poor work and school performance, and depression. Having obstructive sleep apnea increases the risk of high blood pressure, recurring heart attacks, and stroke.

Other complications of sleep apnea include type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, difficulties with general anasthesia, and liver problems.

Sleep apnea: what are the symptoms?

Some of the symptoms of sleep apnea occur with both types, and some are unique to each type. The most common signs of sleep apnea are:

  • Snoring, usually loudly enough to disrupt your roommate’s sleep
  • Periodically stopping to breathe during sleep, as observed by another person
  • Waking up abruptly, with shortness of breath or gasping/choking
  • Waking up with sore throat, dry mouth, and/or headache
  • Insomnia
  • Heavy sleepiness during the daytime
  • Irritability

Consult with your doctor if you have any of these symptoms, so you can get screened for sleep apnea right away.

Sleep apnea: who is at risk?

Even children with no risk factors can have sleep apnea, but there are certain factors that will increase your risk:

Obesity—being overweight quadruples your risk of obstructive sleep apnea. Having a thick neck also raises your risk. Men with neck circumferences of 17 inches and larger, and women with 15 inches or more are at higher risk.

Family history—if any of your family members have obstructive sleep apnea, you carry a higher risk of developing it. In addition, narrow throats can be genetic and can contribute to the condition.

Age and maleness—older adults are significantly more likely to have both types of sleep apnea. In addition, men are twice as likely to have obstructive sleep apnea.

Smoking—smokers are three times more likely to have obstructive sleep apnea, because smoking increases inflammation and fluid retention in the airway.

Nasal congestion—those with difficulty breathing through their nose, due to allergies or the shape of their nasal passages, are more likely to develop obstructive sleep apnea.

Heart disorders and stroke—having congestive heart failure or history of stroke puts you at higher risk of developing central sleep apnea.

Using narcotics—taking opioid medications increases the risk of central sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea: how is it treated?

Your doctor will diagnose sleep apnea based on your reported signs and symptoms. He may refer you to a sleep disorder center, where you will undergo further evaluation. Sleep disorder centers, like the Sleep Science Center at UIC Medical Center in Chicago, have hotel-like bedrooms where you spend the night. While you sleep, your breathing and other body functions are monitored. You may also be able to do this test at home.

Once you receive your diagnosis, your doctor may recommend you see a specialist to check for underlying conditions. For obstructive sleep apnea, your doctor may recommend you see an ear, nose, and throat doctor to check if you have any blockages in your airway. For central sleep apnea, you may need an evaluation with a cardiologist or neurologist.

Treatment often focuses on the underlying cause of the sleep apnea. Milder cases may be cured with lifestyle changes—such as losing weight or stopping smoking. If nasal allergies are the cause of the disorder, you may be able to cure it by treating your allergies. Likewise, treating heart failure can eliminate your central sleep apnea.

Moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea may benefit from therapies such as a CPAP machine, a mask-like device that delivers air pressure while you sleep. Many people find it uncomfortable at first, but it’s proven to be the most reliable method of treating sleep apnea.

There are several other therapy options for sleep apnea, but if all else fails, surgery may be necessary.

If you think you may have sleep apnea, speak with your doctor to explore your diagnosis and treatment options.