Sleep Apnea: What You Need to Know
A potentially dangerous sleep disorder increases risk for high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke.
Do you snore? Wake up feeling tired after a full night’s sleep? Have you been told that you seem to stop breathing for brief intervals throughout the night?
If so, you may be among millions of North Americans who have a common, yet potentially dangerous sleep disorder called sleep apnea.
“Apnea” – which is Greek for “without breath” – refers to episodes where a person pauses in breathing during sleep. Typically, an episode lasts long enough that one or more breaths are missed, and can occur dozens or even hundreds of times throughout the night.
The sleep disorder is considered a serious medical condition. About half of people with sleep apnea develop high blood pressure which increases the risk of heart failure and stroke. And a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (November 2005) found that obstructive sleep apnea greatly increases the risk of stroke even if a person doesn’t have high blood pressure.
However, effectively treating sleep apnea can lower blood pressure and risks of cardiovascular disease.
Sleep apnea can also lead to severe daytime fatigue, memory problems, mood swings or feelings of depression, a need to urinate frequently at night (nocturia), and impotence.
Sleep apnea occurs in two distinct forms: central and obstructive. Obstructive sleep apnea, the more common type, occurs when soft tissues of the throat relax and cause a physical block to airflow. In central sleep apnea, the brain doesn’t send the proper signals to the muscles that control breathing. Complex sleep apnea is a combination of both types.
Symptoms of obstructive and central sleep apneas overlap, sometimes making a determination between the two difficult. According to the Mayo Clinic, the most common symptoms of both obstructive and central sleep apneas include:
• Excessive daytime sleepiness
• Loud snoring
• Observed episodes of breathing cessation during sleep
• Abrupt awakenings accompanied by shortness of breath
• Awakening with a dry mouth or sore throat
• Morning headache
• Difficulty staying asleep or insomnia
Disruptive snoring may be a more prominent characteristic of obstructive sleep apnea, while awakening with shortness of breath may be more common with central sleep apnea.
If you suspect you may have either type of sleep apnea, consult your doctor for screening and treatment options.
People of all ages, even children, can have sleep apnea. Certain factors, however, put you at increased risk.
Obstructive sleep apnea
• Being overweight. Fat deposits around your upper airway may obstruct your breathing. However, not everyone who has sleep apnea is overweight.
• Having a thick neck. A thick neck may narrow the airway and may be an indication of excess weight. A neck circumference greater than 17 inches can lead to an increased risk of obstructive sleep apnea.
• High blood pressure. Sleep apnea is not uncommon in people with high blood pressure.
• Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). People with moderate to severe sleep apnea may benefit from a machine that delivers air pressure through a mask placed over the nose while sleeping. The increased air pressure helps to keep the upper airway passages open, preventing apnea and snoring.
• Oral appliances. Another option is wearing an oral appliance designed to keep your throat open. Experts consider CPAP to be more effective, but many people find oral appliances easier to use.
• Surgery or other procedures. Surgical procedures can remove excess tissue from your nose or throat that may be vibrating and causing you to snore, or that may be blocking your upper air passages.
Treatments for central sleep apnea can also include therapy for associated medical problems such as heart or neuromuscular disorders.
For more information on treatment options, click here.
Experts say that self-care measures can go a long way in dealing with obstructive sleep apnea and possibly central sleep apnea.
• Lose excess weight. Even a slight loss in excess weight may help relieve constriction of your throat.