What is sleep apnea?
If you have sleep apnea, your sleep is disrupted when your breathing temporarily stops, or if you start breathing with very shallow breaths. This can happen as much as 30 times (or more) an hour—it is easy to see how this can disrupt your sleep! Oftentimes, normal breathing starts again with a loud snore.
What are symptoms of sleep apnea that I should be aware of?
There are two kinds of sleep apnea—central and obstructive. Central sleep apnea is caused by a communication problem between your brain and breathing muscles. Obstructive sleep apnea is when your airway becomes blocked or if your airway collapses.
The following symptoms are associated with obstructive sleep apnea, which is much more common than central sleep apnea.
If you notice these symptoms, you might want to visit your doctor:
- You are tired all the time during the day. Although this could be caused by many things, sleep apnea is a leading cause of drowsiness during the day.
- Others in your household notice you pause in your breathing when you sleep, or you have very shallow breathing
- Loud snoring, which is caused when air tries to get through the blockage in your throat.
- Waking up with a very dry mouth and throat
- Attention problems during the day due to lack of sleep
- A headache that you have as soon as you wake up
- Difficulty staying asleep
How will I be diagnosed with sleep apnea?
It is not easy for your doctor to diagnose sleep apnea when you are in his office. However, there are a few signs your doctor might look for to see if sleep apnea is your problem.
For example, obstructive sleep apnea occurs more often in people who are overweight, and in people who have a thick neck or a narrow throat. Also, sleep apnea is more common in men and in adults who are older than 60. If you smoke or use alcohol, sedatives, or tranquilizers, these could cause sleep apnea. Your doctor also might ask if you have nasal congestion, which can cause difficulty breathing through your nose. Having family members with sleep apnea also means you have an increased risk for the condition.
If your doctor diagnoses you with sleep apnea, he may then refer you to a sleep center, where they will monitor your breathing while you sleep.
What problems can arise with sleep apnea?
If left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to some serious problems, such as diabetes, stroke, heart failure, high blood pressure, obesity, heart attack, and irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia). And, of course, not sleeping and being tired all day can lead to accidents behind the wheel or at work. It can also result in depression, mood swings, and memory problems.
What can I do if I have sleep apnea?
There are quite a few things you can try to take care of sleep apnea.
These are devices you wear while you sleep that help to open up your blocked airways. One of the most-used devices is the CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure), which is a mask that you wear over your nose. The air pressure you get through the mask helps to keep your airway passages open. The CPAP is a reliable way to treat apnea, but many patients complain that the mask is too uncomfortable to wear while sleeping.
Two other devices that open up the airways are the BPAP (bilevel positive airway pressure) and the EPAP (expiratory positive airway pressure). The EPAP devices are smaller than the CPAP—they are placed over each nostril, and may be a better option for those bothered by the CPAP mask.
Surgery is usually the last resort. Depending on why you are having problems with sleep apnea, the surgery may remove excess tissue from your throat, or it may reposition your jaw so your throat is less obstructed. The surgeon may also perform a tracheostomy—the creation of a new air passageway. This is reserved for the most severe sleep apnea cases.
Oral appliances, or mouth guards, are a little less drastic (and more comfortable) than a CPAP mask—and probably a lot more appealing than surgery!
Your dentist can fit you for a mouth guard, which will bring your jaw forward, opening your throat. This should stop snoring and help with mild sleep apnea.
If you think you might have sleep apnea, make sure you visit your doctor soon—it won’t get better on its own, and it may even end up endangering your health.