Does your partner snore? Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night gasping for air? These are symptoms of sleep apnea, a sleep disorder which can range in severity. Minor cases may cause you to disturb your partner with snoring, or prevent you from getting a good night’s sleep. Severe cases can be potentially dangerous. But proper diagnosis and treatment can help you get the air you need at night for a more functional, happy life during your waking hours.
It is reported that about 22 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) is the most common type of sleep apnea. It occurs when the soft tissues of your mouth and throat sag during sleep, blocking your airway and preventing you from breathing properly for several seconds. This can happen hundreds of times per night. It can be treated with lifestyle changes, a CPAP machine, or oral appliance therapy.
Central sleep apnea (CSA) is much less common than OSA, and causes less than 10% of all sleep apnea cases. In this type of apnea, breathing interruptions are not caused by sagging tissues. Instead, breathing is interrupted because your brain is not sending the proper signals to your lungs to make them breathe. Usually, CSA must be treated with a CPAP machine.
Complex sleep apnea syndrome (CompSAS) typically involves both OSA and CSA. It can be difficult to diagnose, but can usually be treated with a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine.
The most common cause of sleep apnea is the obstruction of your airway by your oral tissue during sleep. This is what causes Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA). Contributing factors to OSA include being overweight, use of alcohol and sedatives, smoking tobacco, nasal congestion, and genetic factors like a narrow mouth or throat.
Central sleep apnea (CSA) is caused by improper brain signals to your lungs, which cause them to stop breathing for short periods of time. It can be caused due to medical conditions like Cheyne-Stokes respiration, by damage to the brain stem, which controls breathing, or by the use of certain types of narcotic painkillers.
Patients with complex sleep apnea (CompSAS) typically experience symptoms of both obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea.
The most common symptom of sleep apnea is deep, prolonged snoring, which is accompanied by periodic interruptions in breathing during sleep. The patient will then gasp for air upon the resumption of breathing. Some patients might wake up from this.
Other signs and symptoms of sleep apnea include a dry throat and mouth upon waking, insomnia, poor quality sleep, morning headaches, drowsiness throughout the day, decreased sex drive, and irritability. If you recognize one or more of these symptoms in yourself or your sleeping partner, you can see a sleep specialist for a diagnosis.
CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machines are commonly used to treat sleep apnea. This machine uses a face and nose mask to deliver a stream of gently pressurized air into the airway. In obstructive sleep apnea, this prevents the soft tissues of your airway from sagging, and also delivers air into the lungs for patients who have central sleep apnea. CPAP machines are usually the only way to treat central or complex sleep apnea.
For OSA, however, there are more options. Oral appliance therapy (OAT) is becoming more common. In this treatment, your dentist will create an oral appliance, which looks similar to a retainer or a mouth guard. This device will shift the position of your jaw during sleep, keeping your oral tissue from sagging, and treating your sleep apnea.
In addition, OSA can be mitigated or even eliminated by some basic lifestyle changes, such as ceasing smoking and alcohol use, avoiding narcotics or sedatives, losing weight, and changing the position in which you sleep.
Nearly 80 percent of the cases of obstructive sleep apnea go undiagnosed.
CPAP machines have a reputation for being very noisy. But the truth is that modern machines are very quiet, and will not negatively affect your ability to sleep. The average noise level of modern CPAP machines is about 30 dB, which is about as loud as a whisper.
The noise from your CPAP machine should not bother you or your sleeping partner. But if it does, you can consider turning on a fan or purchasing a white noise machine to cover up the noise of the sleep apnea machine.
In the short term, sleep apnea affects the body by interfering with your sleep. High-quality, restful sleep is essential for your overall health and well-being, and your mental health. You may feel irritable and drowsy during the day, and have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep at night. You may also experience frequent interruptions in sleep.
In the long-term, sleep apnea is even more dangerous. Since it interrupts proper respiration and blood oxygenation, it can contribute to your risk of a stroke or development of heart disease. For that reason, it’s very important to get help for apnea as soon as you can.
Sleep apnea is more than a snore. It usually involves loud, prolonged snoring that is accompanied by frequent pauses in breathing. When the person with apnea starts breathing again, they also usually make “gasping” or “choking” sounds. If you hear this pattern of breathing, it’s very likely that sleep apnea is causing it. But if your sleeping partner snores frequently, and their sleep is not interrupted by pauses in breathing, it’s unlikely that they have sleep apnea.
In the short-term, sleep apnea can make you drowsy and inattentive due to poor-quality sleep. This can be very dangerous for people who drive frequently or for individuals who often operate heavy or dangerous machinery for work.
The long-term effects are even more dangerous. Moderate to severe sleep apnea has been linked with a 4x higher risk of stroke and a 4x overall higher increase in mortality (risk of death). In addition, sleep apnea has been linked with heart problems including coronary heart disease, hypertension (high blood pressure), cardiac arrhythmia, and heart failure.
For all of these reasons, it’s important to work with a qualified sleep specialist and a dentist to understand the cause of your apnea, and get the care you need to breathe properly, treat your apnea, and get a restful night of sleep once again.
If left untreated, sleep apnea can cause high blood pressure and heart disease.