Most of us are aware that snoring is caused by relaxed muscles at the back of the airway, which vibrate when air passes into the lungs. For an astonishingly high proportion of the US population, however, these muscles relax so much that they obstruct the air flow between the nose, mouth and lungs so that breaths are frequently missed and the blood oxygen level falls. This condition is known as sleep apnea, which can cause many more symptoms than breathlessness.
Sleep apnea affects as many as one in fifteen Americans in a variety of ways. When the oxygen levels in the blood fall a message is sent to the brain, like an ‘alert’ that something needs to be done. This, in turn, causes the brain to wake up and someone who is in a deep sleep will get disturbed into a lighter sleep. Adults need certain periods of deep sleep in order to healthy and refreshed after a night’s sleep. Those with apnea often wake up feeling very unrefreshed, tired and unwell after long periods of interrupted sleep. This is one of the most serious of the symptoms sleep apnea brings, as it causes long term damage to the organs (particularly the heart) and even mental health.
Unfortunately for many, sleep apnea is not the first thought when someone starts experiencing symptoms of it. This is because, as far as they know, they sleep through the night quite soundly. It’s not until someone hears them snoring intermittently and/or gasping for air in their sleep that they actually visit their doctor for it.
Common symptoms also include a sore throat upon waking (due to snoring), mood swings and impaired cognition. Because sleep apnea causes a lack of quality sleep and the brain needs quality sleep in order to recover and repair damage, the brains of sleep apnea sufferers constantly function at a low level. This results in poor memory, an inability to concentrate and the length of time it takes to learn something new extends.
Oddly enough, some sufferers of sleep apnea develop problems with their bladder than transfer into their waking life too. This is because the number of times a sleep apnea sufferer is woken is many more than the once most of us experience. Our brain receives regular messages from the bladder saying ‘I need emptying’, meaning that the sufferer will get up, go to the toilet but find they are urinating very small volumes. This ‘trains’ the bladder to need emptying very often, which happens during the day as well. For children, this symptom is usually experienced instead as bed wetting. Children also often breathe through their mouths rather than their nose even if their nose is clear, they may have periods of hyperactivity followed by periods of exhaustion during the day and they’re likely to be unusually irritable too.
Sleep apnea may have only been recognized for the first time in the 1960s, but almost 50 years on, doctors are able to diagnose it in patients far more readily than ever before. Luckily for those experiencing the symptoms sleep apnea causes, there are also several possible avenues of treatment available.