In a recent article, I talked about my own battle with insomnia, and what you can do overcome it once and for all. If you read the article, you know I mentioned sleep apnea as one of the leading medical causes of insomnia.
So, I figured it would be a good idea to explain to you, as detailed as possible, what having sleep apnea feels and looks like, what you can expect regarding symptoms, and, most importantly, what you can do to get better.
Today, we have a common enemy – sleep apnea, as well as a shared goal – improving your health and sleep quality.
Let’s get to it!
First Things First: What Is Sleep Apnea?
Before we dive in, I’d like to point out that no, it’s not just a fancy name for snoring, one that sounds a bit more serious, and would likely stop your friends and family from making fun of you for your snoring.
With that said, if you do have a bit of a problem with snoring, there’s no need to be embarrassed about it – you’d be surprised at how many people are dealing with this issue.
Now that I’ve got that out of the way let’s answer the first and most important question of all:
If it’s not a fancy word for snoring, what is it?
Sleep apnea (or sleep apnoea, whatever you choose to call it) is a sleep-related breathing disorder. And a potentially life-threatening one, for that matter. The term apnea comes from a Greek word, meaning “absence of breathing.” Sounds scary, huh?
Because it’s characterized by disrupted breathing patterns that occur while you’re asleep, this condition takes a tremendous physical toll on your body. I’ll talk a bit more about that later, so stick around.
Did you know that there’s more than one type of sleep apnea? Three, to be precise.
1Type 1: Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Let’s talk about the most common form of sleep apnea first – the obstructive type. What happens is that something, either your tongue or fatty tissues in your throat, gets relaxed to the point of falling back into the airways. As you can guess, this blocks the airflow.
When that occurs, there’s no way for the air to move beyond the obstruction. At least not without a deep enough breath. That’s what causes the most recognizable symptom of obstructive sleep apnea ever – loud, persistent snoring, and even choking sounds.
Depending on the number of these episodes a person experiences within an hour:
- Mild OSA: 5-14 episodes each hour
- Moderate OSA: 15-30 episodes each hour
- Severe OSA: Over 30 episodes each hour
2Type 2: Central Sleep Apnea
Think of it this way:
If obstructive sleep apnea is a mechanical problem, then central sleep apnea can be thought of as a communication problem. Your brain is merely unable to communicate with the muscles that
regulate breathing correctly.
The connection between your central nervous system and your respiratory system gets weak – or even lost entirely. And while you’re fast asleep, this results in frequent, short pauses in breathing.
On the plus side, CSA is not nearly as common as OSA. If you’re looking for some numbers to put that into perspective, we’re talking about less than 20 percent of all diagnosed sleep apnea cases.
3Type 3: Complex Sleep Apnea
As the name already suggests, the third type of sleep apnea is also the most complex one. Why? Because it’s a combination of both obstructive and central sleep apnea, that’s why.
How does this happen?
In some cases, it’s the use of CPAP devices that results in mixed sleep apnea. When treating obstructive sleep apnea using PAP therapy (don’t worry, I’ll explain all of this later), it’s possible for patients to develop central sleep apnea as a result.
4Which Factors Put You At Risk For Developing Sleep Apnea?
Now that you know what sleep apnea is, I think it’s time to discuss what causes it or, at least, what could put you in the risk for developing it at some point in your life.
And since you’re here, it’s safe to assume that you already have your doubts. I’m going to help you determine if you’re showing some of the significant symptoms later on in the article, but for now, let’s focus on establishing if you fall into one of the high-risk groups.
- Being Overweight – While it’s true that you don’t have to be overweight to have sleep apnea, your chances of developing obstructive sleep apnea could be up to four times higher if you are. Yes, you read that right – four times.
I think it’s time to calculate your BMI, just to be on the safe side.
- Large Neck Circumference – Thicker necks might result in narrower airways, which puts you at a higher risk for developing obstructive sleep apnea. How can you know if you have a larger neck, though? I mean, it’s just a neck, right?
A good rule of thumb here would be anything over 17 inches in men or 15 inches in women.
- Narrow Airway – This factor is closely related to obstructive sleep apnea. If your throat is naturally a bit tighter, you might develop this disorder due to partially blocked airways. Kids fall into this category, as well, mostly because they’re more likely to suffer from enlarged tonsils.
- Your Age And Gender – Your age play a huge role in your chances of having either obstructive or central sleep apnea. The older you are, the higher your risk is. As far as gender goes, I’m sorry, guys, but you’re twice as likely to develop sleep apnea than the ladies.
- Unhealthy Lifestyle Choices – Smoking is a nasty habit, you probably already knew that. But did you know that, as a smoker, you’re three times more likely to develop sleep apnea?
- History Of Sleep Apnea In Your Family – If any of your family members suffer from this sleeping disorder, it increases your chances of getting it, too. It’s as simple as that.
- Specific Medication – Any medication that might cause your throat muscles to relax could lead to sleep apnea. That’s particularly true for sedatives and sleeping pills.
If you’re worried about the effect of these prescription meds, feel free to ask your doctor about it.
- Heart Disorder – Finally, heart disorders, such as congestive heart failure, put you at a much higher risk of developing a sleep disorder – central sleep apnea, to be exact.
Keep in mind that sleep apnea isn’t a particularly picky disorder, though. It can affect anyone, and yes, that includes kids, too.
How Can You Be Sure It’s Sleep Apnea, And Not Just Harmless Snoring?
The question here is:
Where do we draw the line?
When does it stop being loud snoring that keeps your partner up at night, and turns into a possibly life-threatening condition? And how can you be sure which one is it?
The best way to find out is, of course, to look for the signs and symptoms, but before I move on to explain what those symptoms are, answer me this:
How do you feel in the morning and throughout the day?
If the quality of your sleep is somehow compromised, trust me, you’re going to notice. And that’s precisely where we can draw the line.
*A Quick Sleep Apnea Symptom Checklist: Warning Signs To Look For
Here’s where things get a little tricky.
Because, given the fact that, as we previously established, sleep apnea is a sleeping disorder, you have to be asleep for all the primary symptoms to manifest. And if you’re asleep, how can you keep track of them, right?
Those of you that have a partner, someone to share a bed with, could ask them to help you out by observing your sleeping habits.
What about the loners, though?
Don’t worry, I have an idea on how you can keep an eye on yourself, and it includes a camera. That’s right: you can record yourself during the night, and look for any abnormalities by watching the video.
And as far as I’m concerned, that sounds like a way better option than asking your partner to keep an eye on you. It’s way more accurate, that’s for sure.
To help you out, I’ve put together a list of all the main warning signs – a sleep apnea symptom checklist, if you will – to make it easier for you to determine if it is, in fact, time to consult a sleep specialist.
So, if you experience any of the following symptoms on a nightly basis, there’s a chance that you’re suffering from sleep apnea:
- Loud snoring that persists night after night
- Gasping for air or choking while you’re asleep
- Experiencing pauses in breathing
- Nocturia or, simply put, frequent nighttime trips to the bathroom
- Waking up in the middle of the night feeling short of breath
- Insomnia and restless sleep
But guess what? Some symptoms can be observed while you’re awake, as well. We’ll call them the “daytime” symptoms.
At least it makes them a lot easier to spot, huh?
Most, if not all, of the symptoms in this category, can be described as direct consequences of disrupted sleep patterns caused by sleep apnea. Simply put, it’s the result of experiencing the first group of symptoms listed above.
So, here’s a list of the daytime symptoms of sleep apnea:
- Experiencing sleepiness and excessive fatigue
- Feeling unrefreshed after what seems to be a decent amount of sleep
- Waking up with a headache or developing one soon after getting up
- Finding it hard to stay focused and showing signs of forgetfulness
- Being moody, easily irritable, or even depressed
- Experiencing a significant decrease in sexual desire or developing impotence
When to seek medical attention?
You should talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing some of the symptoms listed above. The sooner you get your diagnosis, the sooner you can start an appropriate course of treatment.
But the thing about sleep apnea is that things can go south pretty quickly. Any disorder that makes you stop breathing several times in an hour should be treated with utmost urgency. Technically speaking, each time you stop breathing, you run a risk of dying in your sleep.
Yes, sleep apnea is that dangerous.
You Were Diagnosed With Sleep Apnea – What Now?
One question that seems to pop up a lot among the people diagnosed with sleep apnea is:
Considering all the risks related to leaving sleep apnea untreated (or even undiagnosed), of course, you’re interested in learning what your options are. At this point, the most important thing to remember is that, fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to treat sleep apnea.
Don’t let this disorder, no matter how dangerous it is, scare you. You’ve got this.
I know it’s easier being said than done, but even some slight changes in your behavior will go a long way in relieving some (if not all) sleep apnea symptoms. So, here’s what you could do:
- Lose weight – If you’re overweight, there’s a big chance that your weight is affecting your breathing patterns.
I know what you’re thinking:
How are these two things related?
The thing is, overweight people usually have some extra tissue in their throats, which tends to block the air flow to their lungs while they’re sleeping. So, if you’re one of them, I would suggest you go on a diet. You’d be surprised how much of a difference a few pounds can make regarding sleep apnea symptoms.
- Quit smoking – Everyone knows smoking is bad for you. Even if you didn’t have sleep apnea, I would still tell you that it’s a habit you should kick as soon as possible. And since you do have it, smoking should be the last thing on your mind.
All smoking does is increase inflammation, as well as fluid retention in your throat, which only makes it harder to keep your airways open. Keep that in mind the next time you reach for a cigarette.
- Avoid alcohol consumption, sleeping pills or sedatives – Better yet, avoid anything that could cause the muscles in your throat to relax to a point where it starts interfering with your breathing.
While having a couple of drinks with your friends on the weekend is fun, I think we can all agree that keeping your breathing pattern intact should be a priority for someone suffering from sleep apnea, right?
It pretty much goes without saying that you will have to change your sleeping position, too.
As a former insomniac, I know how priceless it is to find a sleeping position that makes you fall asleep almost instantly. That’s why it’s so hard for me to say this:
You’re probably going to have to abandon your favorite sleeping position, especially if you tend to sleep on your back quite often. The thing is, some people start experiencing sleep apnea merely because they’re sleeping on their backs.
Here’s what happens:As you’re lying on your back, your tongue and the soft tissue in the back of your throat are more likely to block your airway – a textbook example of obstructive sleep apnea, if I’ve ever seen one.
Anyway, I’d say it’s time to switch to sleeping on your side.
1Treatment Options Your Doctor Might Suggest
Sometimes lifestyle changes just aren’t enough to reduce the symptoms. There’s no reason to worry, though. Your doctor will have some tricks up their sleeve, too.
1CPAP And Other Breathing Devices
Continuous Positive Airflow Pressure, or CPAP, works by delivering an equal amount of air pressure throughout the night. Because of that, using CPAP requires regular trips to the doctor’s, to ensure that the pressure levels are suitable for your particular case.
Bilevel positive airway pressure, or BPAP, will probably be recommended to you by your doctor if you have trouble adapting to the CPAP. Another case where BPAP might be a better option is if you have a weak breathing pattern due to central sleep apnea.
The device will detect, and adjust to, your breathing patterns, making sure you get the right amount of air pressure depending on whether you’re inhaling or exhaling.
Expiratory positive airway pressure, or EPAP, is a less intrusive alternative to the CPAP devices. They fit over the nostrils and keep your airways open; it’s as simple as that.
Their main advantage is that they’re less intrusive and smaller than their CPAP counterparts.
Adaptive servo-ventilation or ASV devices is an excellent choice for those that suffer from obstructive sleep apnea or central sleep apnea. Either way, an ASV device will do the job.
The way they work is truly fascinating. The ASV devices store data about your breathing patterns and act accordingly, by detecting and preventing pauses in your breathing.
I promise there’s a valid point behind the following question, so bear with me:
Have you ever engaged in a sports activity that required you to wear a mouth guard?
I can’t think of a better example of what it’s like to wear a dental device for sleep apnea than that. Of course, it all depends on the type of device you get – a mandibular repositioning device or a tongue retaining device. As the names already suggest, one adjusts the lower jaw, while the other works by bringing your tongue forward.
If you don’t get properly fitted, I’m afraid you might end up with a lot of unwanted side-effects. Nausea, soreness, saliva build-up, and even permanent changes in the position of your teeth and jaw don’t sound very pleasing, do they?
If all else fails, your doctor will probably suggest surgery as a means of increasing the size of your upper airway. There are, of course, several different procedures available, depending on where the site of obstruction is located, as well as what’s causing the blockage in the first place.
Whether it’s jaw reconstruction surgery, removing excess tissue, tonsils or adenoids, the ultimate goal remains the same: opening up your airways.
As with any other surgical procedure, there are some risks you need to be aware of, but your surgeon will walk you through them when the time comes. Overall, though, surgery is a very safe and, not to mention, effective way to cure sleep apnea once and for all.
2What If You Leave Sleep Apnea Untreated?
You’ve learned about the potential causes; you know all the symptoms. You even learned about the possible courses of treatment. But what happens if you decide not to get treatment? Or if you don’t get diagnosed, in the first place?
What happens then?
So, before I wrap things up, I’d like to take a moment to answer all these questions for you and, hopefully, make you realize what a severe disorder this is. It’s more than just losing sleep and snoring loudly. At its worst, sleep apnea is a life-threatening disorder. So, treat it as such.
Get diagnosed, and start exploring the treatment methods as soon as possible, because if you don’t, you’re risking more than you can imagine. When untreated, sleep apnea could shorten your life expectancy for up to 12 years.
Take a moment to think about that.
- High Blood Pressure – Since sleep apnea episodes cause the level of oxygen in your blood to drop enough to cause your blood pressure to rise. It’s what keeps the oxygen flowing through to your brain and heart.
The thing is, healthy people experience a 10 to 20 percent drop in blood pressure while they sleep. You can only imagine the amount of stress this puts on your body.
And if you’re already suffering from high blood pressure, if left untreated, sleep apnea will only make it worse.
- Irregular Heartbeat – Atrial fibrillation, or irregular heartbeat, is another common risk for people with undiagnosed (or untreated) sleep apnea. That is due to the combination of low oxygen levels and disrupted sleep patterns. The more frequent the pauses in breathing you make while you sleep, the higher the risk.
- Heart Disease – Another heart-related problem people with sleep apnea may encounter the higher risk of heart disease, most commonly heart attacks.
Hearts of those that suffer from sleep apnea apparently have to work overtime to combat all the „side-effects” of this disorder. Ultimately, your heart could succumb to all the stress that sleep apnea put it through.
- Stroke – The dangerous combination of high blood pressure and low oxygen levels could also increase your risks of suffering a stroke. That risk is up to three times higher if you leave sleep apnea untreated.
At the same time, for those that already had it in the past, recurrent strokes are a definite possibility.
- Type 2 Diabetes – Here’s what happens: sleep apnea, and all its symptoms, might affect your body’s ability to use insulin properly, which means it won’t be able to control your blood sugar levels. Add the fact that obesity is commonly observed in people suffering from sleep apnea, and what you get is a „perfect storm.”
And if sleep apnea can increase your risks of developing type 2 diabetes, just imagine what it could do to your body if you already have it.
- Traffic Accidents – Don’t forget that, much like insomnia, sleep apnea is a sleeping disorder. That means there’s a pretty high chance of you going through life in a zombie-like state, sleep deprived and exhausted. And we all know that sleepy people are incredibly accident-prone.
Speaking in numbers, people with sleep apnea (untreated, of course) have chances up to five times higher to get involved traffic accidents.
Modern medicine has given you plenty of tools for fighting sleep apnea. Now it’s up to you to use them.
Final Thoughts About Sleep Apnea
Okay, I think I’ve managed to cover everything: signs, symptoms, risk factors, as well as treatment options. That’s why I’d like to take this opportunity to share with you some words of encouragement.
I get that sleep apnea can be a scary diagnosis, but, as I said earlier, you’ve got this.
Remember to take care of yourself.
Your health should, now more than ever, come first.
Of course, if you have any additional questions, or want to share some useful tips with the rest of us, feel free to leave a comment below!