Sleep Disorder Guide: Sleep Apnea
Good sleep is essential for good health.
Waking up constantly in the middle of the night is not only bad for your over all well-being, but may be the result of an underlying sleep disorder.
This guide will help you determine if your restless nights are pointing to a more serious condition known as sleep apnea.
We’ll outline all that you need to know about sleep apnea, including the symptoms, causes and available treatments.
What is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder in which a person’s breathing is repeatedly interrupted throughout the night, which decreases or stops their oxygen intake.
This lack of airflow can have serious long-term effects on the body—especially if the sleep apnea goes untreated.
At the time of obstruction, breathing stops for 10 - 20 seconds or until the brain recognizes the lack of oxygen.
The worst part? A person with sleep apnea will stop breathing throughout the night without even knowing it, causing them to snort, gasp or repeatedly wake.
Some telltale signs of sleep apnea include consistent daytime fatigue, irritability and loud snoring.
Types of Sleep Apnea
There are three main types of sleep apnea:
1. Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)
The first type of sleep apnea is called obstructive sleep apnea, which is easily defined by its name.
It’s the most common form—caused by a blocked, or “obstructed” airway, due to relaxed throat muscles.
2. Central Sleep Apnea (CSA)
Central sleep apnea is less common and happens when the brain fails to send the right signals to the muscles responsible for proper breathing. It is the result of a neurological defect.
3. Complex Sleep Apnea
This type of sleep apnea is a combination of the first two. The person experiences obstructed airways while the brain won’t fire the necessary signals to ensure proper breathing.
Who Gets Sleep Apnea?
Anyone can be affected by this sleep disorder.
That said, it is more prevalent in men than women, and more common in those over the age of 50.
It is estimated that more than 5 million Canadians suffer from sleep apnea, while many of them remain undiagnosed.
Untreated sleep apnea can cause serious health problems such as heart disease, diabetes and depression, and can derail daytime function and increase the risk of accidents due to tiredness.
Causes of Sleep Apnea
The two main types of sleep apnea are considerably different from one another in their causes. One is caused by blocked airways, while the other is caused by a neurological condition.
Therefore, the main risk factors differ as well.
The factors that increase the chance of obstructive sleep apnea include:
- Sleeping on your back: This sleep position increases the chance of the tongue blocking the throat
- Obesity: Excess fat around the airway can restrict airflow and obstruct breathing
- Gender: Men are two times more likely to be diagnosed with sleep apnea
- Age: Sleep apnea is more likely to occur in older adults
- Neck size: A person with a thicker neck is more susceptible to sleep apnea due to narrow airways
- Genetics: Family history may increase the risk of sleep apnea
- Nasal obstruction: This includes allergies and sinus problems
- Smoking: Smoking increases inflammation in the throat, leading to blocked airways
- Alcohol: Alcohol relaxes the muscles in the throat, worsening symptoms
The cause of central sleep apnea, on the other hand, is likely a heart disorder, the use of opioid medication or the consequence of a stroke.
Sleep Apnea Symptoms
Excessive snoring does not sound like a symptom of a serious medical condition, but it is on the list of sleep apnea symptoms.
It’s important to monitor your body and talk to a medical professional if you think you may have sleep apnea.
Symptoms of sleep apnea include:
- Tiredness: Due to interrupted sleep throughout the night, the body doesn’t get the proper rest it needs to function. This extreme fatigue makes concentrating difficult and may result in irritability and drowsiness.
- Heart problems: The lack of blood oxygen resulting from sleep apnea seriously strains the heart. It increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke.
- Diabetes: The risk of developing type 2 diabetes increases
Headaches, waking up with a dry throat and forgetfulness can also be telltale signs, however,symptoms may vary depending on gender and age.
For instance, women diagnosed with sleep apnea may have additional symptoms, including depression and anxiety. Children, on the other hand, reportedly experience bed-wetting, hyperactivity and learning difficulties at school.
How to Diagnose Sleep Apnea
Because of the vague signs of sleep apnea, the disorder often goes untreated.
However, a common test called a polysomnogram (PSG), which is conducted in a sleep center or at home, can verify if a patient’s symptoms point to sleep apnea.
The PSG records specific physical activities during sleep, such as breathing patterns, body movements and blood oxygen levels.
Sleep specialists use this information to determine if someone has sleep apnea and if the condition is serious. Results from a sleep test, combined with a patient’s medical history and a physical exam help a doctor determine what treatment is best suited for an individual.
For example, if someone is diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea, a doctor might refer them to a throat specialist or dentist for further examination.
If someone is diagnosed with central sleep apnea, a doctor may then refer a patient to a neurologist to begin treatment.
Sleep Apnea Treatments
In the case of mild sleep apnea, a specialist may recommend several lifestyle changes.
Something as simple as sleeping on your side or stomach may drastically help the condition. This reduces the chance of your tongue resting against the back of your throat causing blockage.
Weight loss may also be recommended. Even a minimal amount of weight loss may help reduce the fatty tissue around the throat and reduce symptoms.
Quitting smoking and consuming less alcohol may help, too.
If a healthier lifestyle has no impact on a person’s sleep apnea symptoms, it might be time to consider more advanced treatments.
In cases of severe sleep apnea, there are devices that can help open obstructed airways.
The most commonly used device is a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine, which delivers constant airflow into the nose through a mask. This helps keep airways open throughout the night to promote proper breathing.
If the idea of sleeping with a mask on isn’t appealing, there are other options.
Dental devices are available, too. They’re designed to specifically open the throat and bring the jaw forward to help keep airways clear.
When treatments like the CPAP machine and oral appliance fail, surgery may be recommended.
Some surgical options include tissue removal or shrinking, repositioning of the jaw or surgical removal of the tonsils.
If you think you may have sleep apnea, consult your doctor about treatment options.