The Dangers of Sleep Apnea

Do you stop breathing during your sleep? More important, if you do, how would you know?

Sleep apnea is a condition that afflicts millions, and can have serious effects on their health. The term means “without breath during sleep,” and what this means is that periodically, up to 30 times an hour, you experience a short stoppage of breath. This corrects itself quickly, usually within the space of one or two normal deep breaths, but for the body to restart the breathing process it has to wake up. These periods of waking up may be so brief that you can’t remember them, but they prevent the body from gaining the deep levels of rest it needs. This can result in waking up still feeling tired or sleepy, but also can put pressure on the nervous system and prevent the heart and other organs from repairing and rejuvenating themselves properly.

What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is often accompanied by snoring, often loud snoring. But, just as many people who snore don’t know that they do it, they may not know that their breath stops often during sleep. In most cases these symptoms are reported to them by their partners. Those who suffer from sleep apnea may also be very restless in their sleep, so between the tossing and turning and the snoring, their partners may become sleep deprived as well.

The primary symptom of sleep apnea is being tired when one awakens, and during the day. This can affect every area of life – one’s mood, vitality, outlook, and even sex drive. Those with sleep apnea often gain weight, and have trouble losing it because they lack the energy to exercise. You may find it difficult to concentrate, or find yourself falling asleep while working or watching TV or even driving. Depression is also a common effect of sleep apnea, as are memory problems, mood swings, morning headaches, and impotence.

What causes sleep apnea?

Gravity. When you sleep – especially if you sleep on your back – the muscles and soft tissue of your throat and neck are pulled down by gravity, and in the process the airways become smaller or close. This can be exacerbated by being overweight, and in those with large neck circumference. Males are twice as likely as women to have sleep apnea, and it occurs more often in older adults than in younger ones. There seem to be genetic causes of sleep apnea, such as an inherited narrow throat, and as a result those with a family history of sleep apnea may be more at risk. Smokers are more likely to have sleep apnea than non-smokers, as are those who use sedatives, alcohol, or tranquilizers, because these substances all relax the muscles of the throat. Those with a history of heart disorder, stroke, or brain tumor may be more at risk as well.

But is sleep apnea really all that dangerous?

In a word, yes. Sleep apnea is a serious medical condition. The drops in blood oxygen levels tend to raise blood pressure and increase the risk of hypertension. Sleep apnea also increases the risk of stroke. In a 10-year Spanish study of 1,500 men with sleep apnea, almost 1 in 7 suffered heart attacks, required surgery to open clogged heart arteries, or died from cardiovascular disease. Cardiovascular disease is 3 times more common in men whose sleep apnea has been untreated than in those who have been treated. Studies at the Mayo Clinic have suggested that people with sleep apnea are not only more likely to die in their sleep from heart problems, but that sudden deaths are also more likely in the first few hours after waking. Because of the chronic fatigue and tiredness caused by sleep apnea, those affected have a much greater likelihood of dying or being injured in automobile accidents or on the job.

How is sleep apnea diagnosed and treated?

The most effective way find out for sure if you have sleep apnea is to see your doctor and schedule a sleep study test. This is usually performed in a hospital setting, using instruments that measure your breath and heart rates and detect any apneic episodes that may occur.

One of the most common treatments is to fit the patient with a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) device, to be worn during sleep. The CPAP fits either over your mouth or your nose and blows air through the mask to keep your airways open. This works as a kind of “splint” to keep the passages open so that they won’t collapse during sleep. Interestingly enough, there are dentists who treat sleep apnea, using an appliance that you wear during sleep. Called oral systemic balance (OSB) this technique helps to keep the soft tissues and tongue properly aligned, so that they don’t obstruct the airways. If you’re overweight, the doctor may prescribe diets and exercises to help you lose weight.

In short, there are treatments for sleep apnea, and it is a serious enough condition that you should seek treatment for it. Failure to do so is a serious health risk.

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Juliette Siegfried, MPH

Juliette Siegfried, MPH, has been involved in health communications since 1991. Shortly after obtaining her Master of Public Health degree, she began her career at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Juliette now lives in Europe, where she launched ServingMed(.)com, a small medical writing and editing business for health professionals all over the world.

Juliette's resume, facebook: juliette.siegfriedmph, linkedin: juliettes, (+31) 683 673 767

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