The Hidden Health Risks of Sleep Apnea

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While sleeping, do you or your partner snore loudly; make gasping, snorting, or choking noises; or periodically stop breathing? Do either of you experience significant daytime drowsiness even after a full night’s sleep? If so, you may have a disorder called sleep apnea

Although many consider the symptoms of sleep apnea to be a mere annoyance, a medical consult is advised because the condition, left untreated, can lead to serious, life-shortening health issues. The information below will familiarize you with the disorder and help you decide whether you should seek an evaluation.

What causes sleep apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea, the most common form of the condition, occurs when the muscles in the back of your throat relax while you take a breath in. This causes the airway to narrow or close and may result in a decreased blood oxygen level. In response, your brain sends signals that briefly rouse you from sleep, stimulating you to reopen your airway. This pattern may recur throughout the night, with or without your knowledge, and may prevent you from reaching the optimal deep sleep that your body needs to rest and recharge.

What risk factors are associated with sleep apnea?

There are several factors that may predispose an individual to sleep apnea, including the following:

  • Excess weight
  • Smoking
  • Hereditary factors, such as a family history of sleep apnea or a naturally occurring narrow airway or thick neck circumference
  • Older adulthood
  • Male gender
  • Nasal congestion from allergies or anatomic irregularities
  • Use of substances that relax the throat muscles, such as sedatives or alcohol

What are the complications of sleep apnea?

Over time, sleep apnea can lead to multiple serious health problems. Besides sleep deprivation and excessive fatigue during waking hours, the condition can cause:

  • Irritability or depression
  • Poor concentration
  • Increased risk of motor vehicle or workplace accidents
  • High blood pressure
  • Chronic headache
  • An increased risk of abnormal heart rhythms, heart attack, heart failure, and stroke
  • Type 2 diabetes/abnormal insulin production or utilization
  • Weight management difficulties/metabolic syndrome
  • Abnormal liver function
  • Complications relating to certain medications and anesthesia, which may increase surgical risk
  • Strained relationships with sleep partners
  • An increased risk of death

How is sleep apnea diagnosed?

While your spouse or sleep partner may be thoroughly convinced that you have sleep apnea based solely on the decibel levels of your snoring, it is best to confirm the diagnosis by consulting your physician or seeking a referral to a sleep disorder center. Questionnaires and home sleep study protocols are available that can help your doctor determine whether you are affected by sleep apnea, or you may be referred for overnight monitoring. The latter involves monitoring by electrodes, which are attached to your scalp, face, arms, legs, chest, and a finger. While you sleep, sensors record your eye and limb movements, brain activity, breathing pattern, heart rhythm and rate, and blood oxygen level.

Can sleep apnea be treated?

The treatment for sleep apnea focuses on two primary goals: restoring normal breathing patterns during sleep and relieving any symptoms associated with the condition. One of my close friends who was evaluated and treated for the condition reported feeling better, more energetic, and more rested than he has felt in years. Plus, with treatment, he was able to cut his blood pressure medications by half and improve his blood glucose levels significantly. Several modes of treatment are available:

Lifestyle Adjustments. Mild sleep apnea may be treated simply by lifestyle changes. These may include weight loss for those who are obese or overweight, sleep position adjustment (sleeping on your side rather than on your back), smoking cessation, use of nasal decongestants or antihistamines, and avoidance of alcohol or sedative use, among others.

Airway Pressure Devices. If you have moderate to severe sleep apnea, you may benefit from a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. This device delivers air through a mask over your nose. If you have difficulty with the CPAP, there are other airway pressure devices that may work better for you.

Oral Appliances. Your dentist may be able to fashion a plastic, removable mouthpiece that will adjust the position of your jaw or tongue to help keep your throat open. Although generally less effective than airway pressure machines, this device may be better tolerated.

Surgical Procedures. If less invasive treatment modalities don’t work or can’t be well tolerated, then surgery to widen breathing passages may be an option. The procedure may involve repositioning of the jaw, removal of tissues, tonsils, or adenoids from your mouth or throat, or nasal surgery to correct an anatomic abnormality.

Above all, don’t ignore sleep apnea!

Think snoring and sleep apnea are without risk? Think again! The health problems associated with sleep apnea are serious enough to warrant your attention and that of your doctor. If you suspect you have this condition, don’t delay – seek evaluation and treatment so that you can breathe easier, sleep better, have more energy, and improve your overall health. Your sleep partner will thank you, too!

 

Header Photo by Freepik

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