Sleep apnea is a condition that causes you to stop breathing while you’re sleeping. It may sound harmless, but it can have serious consequences for your health and well-being. In this article, we’ll explain what sleep apnea is, what causes it, what symptoms to look out for, and how to treat it.
What is sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea is a disorder that affects your breathing during sleep. There are two main types of sleep apnea: obstructive and central. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) happens when the muscles in the back of your throat relax and block your airway. Central sleep apnea (CSA) happens when your brain doesn’t send the right signals to the muscles that control your breathing. Both types of sleep apnea can cause you to stop breathing for several seconds or minutes, many times during the night. This reduces the oxygen level in your blood and disrupts your sleep cycle.
What causes sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea can be caused by various factors, depending on the type. OSA is more common and is often related to your anatomy and lifestyle. Some of the risk factors for OSA include:
- Being overweight or obese
- Having a narrow airway, large tonsils, or a deviated septum
- Smoking, drinking alcohol, or using sedatives
- Sleeping on your back
- Being male, older, or of certain ethnicities
CSA is less common and is usually associated with other medical conditions or medications. Some of the risk factors for CSA include:
- Having heart failure, stroke, kidney failure, or Parkinson’s disease
- Taking opioid painkillers or other drugs that affect your breathing
- Living at high altitudes
- Having treatment-emergent CSA, which occurs when OSA converts to CSA during positive airway pressure therapy
What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea can cause various symptoms that affect your sleep quality and daytime functioning. Some of the common symptoms of sleep apnea include:
- Loud snoring
- Gasping, choking, or snorting during sleep
- Waking up with a dry mouth, sore throat, or headache
- Feeling sleepy, tired, or irritable during the day
- Having trouble concentrating, remembering, or performing tasks
- Experiencing mood changes, depression, or anxiety
- Losing interest in sex or having erectile dysfunction
How is sleep apnea diagnosed?
If you suspect you have sleep apnea, you should see your health care provider for an evaluation. Your provider will ask you about your symptoms, medical history, and lifestyle habits. You may also need to undergo a physical exam and some tests to confirm your diagnosis. The most common test for sleep apnea is polysomnography (PSG), which is a sleep study that measures your brain activity, heart rate, breathing patterns, oxygen levels, and body movements while you sleep. You may have PSG done at a sleep center or at home with a portable device.
How is sleep apnea treated?
Sleep apnea can be treated with various methods depending on the type and severity of your condition. The main goals of treatment are to improve your breathing during sleep, reduce your symptoms, and prevent complications. Some of the possible treatments for sleep apnea include:
- Lifestyle changes: These include losing weight if you’re overweight or obese; quitting smoking if you smoke; avoiding alcohol and sedatives before bed; sleeping on your side; and practicing good sleep hygiene.
- Positive airway pressure (PAP) therapy: This involves wearing a mask over your nose or mouth that delivers pressurized air into your airway to keep it open while you sleep. There are different types of PAP devices such as CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure), BiPAP (bilevel positive airway pressure), and APAP (auto-adjusting positive airway pressure).
- Oral appliances: These are devices that fit in your mouth like a mouthguard or a retainer. They work by repositioning your jaw or tongue to prevent your airway from collapsing while you sleep.
- Surgery: This is usually reserved for severe cases of OSA that don’t respond to other treatments. Surgery may involve removing excess tissue from your throat; correcting structural problems in your nose; implanting a device that stimulates your nerve to keep your airway open; or creating an alternative airway through a tracheostomy.
Why should you not ignore sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea is not just a nuisance that affects your sleep quality. It can also have serious consequences for your health and well-being if left untreated. Some of the potential complications of sleep apnea include:
- High blood pressure: Sleep apnea can cause sudden changes in blood pressure and stress on the cardiovascular system due to low oxygen levels and frequent arousals.
- Heart disease: Sleep apnea can increase the risk of heart attack, stroke, atrial fibrillation, and heart failure due to its effects on blood pressure and oxygen levels.
- Diabetes: Sleep apnea can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes due to its effects on insulin resistance and glucose metabolism.
- Liver problems: Sleep apnea can cause abnormal liver function tests and fatty liver disease due to its effects on inflammation and metabolism.
- Metabolic syndrome: Sleep apnea can increase the risk of metabolic syndrome, which is a cluster of conditions that increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes. These conditions include high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high cholesterol levels, and excess abdominal fat.
- Cognitive impairment: Sleep apnea can impair your memory, attention span,
learning ability, and mental health due to its effects on brain function and mood.
Sleep apnea is a serious condition that you shouldn’t ignore. If you have any signs or symptoms of sleep apnea, talk to your health care provider as soon as possible. With proper diagnosis and treatment, you can improve your breathing during sleep, reduce your symptoms, and prevent complications.