Understanding Sleep Apnea

July 09, 2023

Understanding Sleep Apnea

Does it seem you are hearing about more and more people being diagnosed with sleep apnea? If you are nodding your head yes, you are not alone, as medical statistics confirm the number of annual cases of sleep apnea has been steadily rising over the last few years. This increase in sleep apnea likely has multiple causes, ranging from our aging population (sleep apnea risk increases with age), the rise in the numbers of overweight and obese people, and also the increase in women after menopause. Given all this, it’s likely that you, or someone you love, has sleep apnea or is at risk for developing it. Let’s get a closer look at this all-too-common malady and then see what you can do to prevent it.

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder and is potentially very serious. A person who has sleep apnea will stop and start breathing many times during the night, sometimes hundreds of times. Understandably the person who suffers from sleep apnea will often feel tired and groggy, even after a full night’s sleep. Snoring is also common among those with sleep apnea. The consequences of untreated sleep apnea can be very serious and even life threatening and sleep apnea has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, glaucoma and even dementia.

So, what causes this disease? There are different kinds of sleep apnea and the way in which each type is classified points to the underlying cause.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea or OSA, is the most common and happens when the muscles in your throat become too relaxed and block air flowing into your lungs. Central Sleep Apnea or CSA is a brain problem and occurs when your brain does not send the correct signal to the muscles that control your breathing. Finally, there is a condition known as Treatment-Emergent Sleep Apnea also called complex sleep apnea. This type starts out as OSA, and then after therapy is started converts to CSA.

The symptoms of the three types often overlap, so you will need to leave the exact diagnosis up to a sleep specialist. Here are some of the symptoms you should look for if you suspect sleep apnea. Of course, you don’t have to have every one of these symptoms to be diagnosed, as that is done by undergoing a sleep study:

Awakening with a dry mouth in the morning

A morning headache

Loud snoring

Stopping breathing or gasping for breath during the night (usually noticed by your bed partner)

Excessive sleepiness during the day

Irritability and difficulty paying attention to things while awake

Also not everyone who has sleep apnea will snore, so don’t be misled by this if you suspect sleep apnea and do not snore.

Risk factors for the development of sleep apnea include obesity, especially fat accumulation around the neck. Smoking and the use of alcohol, tranquilizers or sedatives can increase risk. If you are male, older, have a positive family history and have trouble breathing through your nose (allergies or obstruction), you are also at greater risk. There are also medical conditions that increase your risk, including congestive heart failure, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.

Fortunately, there is a lot you can do to prevent sleep apnea. Keep your weight under control, if you smoke, ask for your physician’s help in quitting, get regular exercise, and do not sleep on your back. If you have allergies, use a nasal decongestant to keep your nasal passages open. If you use alcohol, drink moderately and not in the hours just before bedtime. Avoid the use of sedatives such as sleeping pills. There are also treatments for sleep apnea that a sleep specialist can assist with after they complete a sleep study and know what sort of apnea a person might be suffering from.  If you suspect that you, or a loved one has sleep apnea, see your physician as soon as possible.

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