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When you sleep, you will drift through the 5 stages of the sleep cycle. As you enter deeper phases of sleep, your body will become more relaxed—sometimes to the point of its own detriment. If you suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, the muscles of the throat become too relaxed during sleep, causing the airway to become restricted and eventually closed off.
Recognizing that it’s not receiving oxygen, the body will then become jostled awake so that normal breathing can resume. What’s worse is that this pattern continues throughout the night, often without the sleeping individual realizing it’s occurring. So, if you have sleep apnea, you may not even realize that it’s an issue. However, you are likely to notice some telltale symptoms, some of which can be seriously harmful to your health.
Though sleep apnea can quickly become a serious problem, it is a manageable condition—in some cases, it’s even fully treatable. With a little knowledge about the symptoms to look for (and the conversation to have with your doctor when you notice those symptoms), you can better manage your sleep. Once you start getting more restful sleep back in your life, you are likely to notice many positive changes in your overall health as well.
What is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is defined by temporary pauses in breathing throughout the night during sleep. There are multiple types of sleep apnea, but obstructive sleep apnea is by far the most common. About 80-90% of diagnosed sleep apnea cases are obstructive sleep apnea.
Central sleep apnea occurs when the brain does not send proper signals to the muscles that control breathing, and complex sleep apnea occurs when a person experiences both central and obstructive sleep apnea at the same time. The signs and symptoms of any type of sleep apnea tend to overlap, but treatment will vary for each type. Therefore, it’s important to work with a physician experienced in sleep medicine, so you can seek the most appropriate and effective treatment.
If you have sleep apnea, you likely wake up dozens of times throughout the night, but you probably do not remember those episodes in the morning. Yet, when you wake up in the morning, you probably don’t feel like you had a full night’s rest. That’s because your body has been unable to maintain a steady cycle of sleep and reach the deeper phases of sleep for sufficient periods of time. Additionally, you’ve been losing oxygen all night. Therefore, the symptoms can be far-reaching and have a profound effect on your daily life.
Could You Have Sleep Apnea?
With sleep apnea, it’s not likely that you’ll recognize problems while you’re sleeping. Instead, you will probably notice changes to your mood, your health and your energy throughout the day. If you sleep in the same bed as your spouse or partner, you may also hear complaints about your loud snoring, a very common sleep apnea symptom.
Take a look at the following checklist. If you check off items in each category or you can relate to several of the signs and symptoms below, it’s time to talk to your doctor about participating in a sleep study to get to the bottom of your sleep woes.
Daytime Sleep Apnea Symptoms
- Excessive drowsiness during the day
- Constant feelings of exhaustion and tiredness—a general “run-down” feeling
- Dry mouth and sore throat upon waking up
- Difficulty concentrating
- Daytime headaches, particularly in the morning
- Trouble recalling information and other short-term memory problems
Nighttime Sleep Apnea Symptoms
- Loud snoring, often with long pauses in between
- Inability to stay asleep at night
- Frequent trips to the bathroom during the night
- Unexplained mood swings
- Increased anxiety
- Lowered sex drive
- Irregular heart rate
- Type 2 diabetes or elevated blood sugar
- History of heart disease or stroke
- High blood pressure
- Liver problems
In addition to the above symptoms, you might also consider your risk for sleep apnea based on several physiological factors, as well as your lifestyle.
- Being overweight or obese
- Deviated septum
- Nasal polyps
- Overbite or recessed lower jaw
- Large neck circumference (16-17 inches)
- Advanced age
- Being male (men are two to three times more likely than women to have sleep apnea)
- Alcohol consumption, particularly before bedtime
- Use of sedatives or tranquilizers
Why Does Sleep Apnea Cause Snoring?
Almost all sufferers of sleep apnea have one thing in common: They snore. Snoring occurs with sleep apnea because, as the airway becomes more restricted, the tissues in the throat will vibrate with more intensity as air is forced through. So, most people with sleep apnea tend to snore loudly, often with an irregular rhythm and with intermittent pauses of up to 30 seconds.
While snoring isn’t something that sleep apnea patients tend to notice on their own, it is a frequent complaint of partners of people with this condition. Additionally, though you may not be cognizant of your own snoring, you may occasionally notice that you gasp while waking up in the night.
What Can Happen if Sleep Apnea Goes Untreated?
Sleep apnea is not a problem that tends to go away on its own. In fact, it tends to get worse without treatment. As you miss out on valuable, restorative sleep, you may develop serious, life-threatening health problems.
Sleep apnea is linked to high blood pressure and a wide range of cardiovascular issues, so it can be a detriment to your heart health. It is also likely to cause insulin resistance and eventually type 2 diabetes. Liver disease is another potential effect.
Each of these conditions is not reversible or easily treated, and each will become progressively worse without treatment of the condition itself as well as the underlying cause of sleep apnea. Finally, you may have complications due to sleep apnea with certain medications, which could be life-threatening.
Once you get treated and want to get better sleep, check out our free downloadable on 7 Ways to Improve Your Sleep Hygiene.
Why should you take part in a sleep study?
If you suspect that you have sleep apnea, your first step will be to talk to your doctor about a sleep study. Your doctor may first recommend at-home sleep monitoring to measure your blood pressure, heart rate and other vital signs during sleep. If this test comes back with abnormal results, then an overnight monitored sleep study will likely be scheduled. This type of sleep study is conducted in a dedicated facility where you will be monitored overnight as you sleep. Following your sleep study, an accurate diagnosis of sleep apnea may be made.
Because the symptoms of sleep apnea can vary, and there are other potential causes for most sleep apnea symptoms, a sleep study will be the only way to definitively diagnose this condition. Furthermore, it can reveal a great deal about your sleep and your health, so it is generally worth pursuing. Plus, sleep studies and sleep apnea treatments are usually covered by health insurance, because sleep apnea has the potential to cause so many serious—and costly—secondary health problems.
Treatment – How Does a Sleep Apnea Machine Work?
For most people diagnosed with sleep apnea, treatment comes in the form of CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) therapy. CPAP machines work by sending a constant flow of airway pressure through a mask worn over the face, so the airway stays open and breathing can continue normally while you sleep.
CPAP designs can vary, and some machines are louder and have more obtrusive masks than others. Take the time to work with your doctor to find a good fit. With comfortably fitted equipment, CPAP therapy is the most effective treatment for sleep apnea.
Other treatments and supplementary therapies can be helpful as well. For some patients, wearing a mouthguard at night keeps the throat from fully closing, so snoring and pauses in breathing no longer occur. Usually these oral appliances are fitted by a dentist, and they are most appropriate for cases of mild sleep apnea.
Other changes to your routine may be recommended as well. For example, your doctor may instruct you to stop drinking or cut down. You may also be told to lose weight as part of your treatment plan.
Another possible option is changing your sleep position. Sleep apnea tends to be worse when lying in the supine position, or on your back. You might use a body pillow or special sleep device to encourage side sleeping instead, which can help keep the airway in a more open position. Before considering any lifestyle changes, however, you should consult a physician. Often, these types of changes are merely intended to supplement your treatment, rather than replace it. In other words, sleeping on your side isn’t enough of a fix to manage sleep apnea effectively.
Common Sleep Apnea Questions
We’ve answered some of the major questions about sleep apnea, but patients are often left with more questions about this condition and the treatment options. Here are a few more sleep apnea FAQs to help you become a more informed patient.
- Does snoring always indicate sleep apnea? Snoring is a common problem, and it is often present in people with sleep apnea. However, snoring does not necessarily mean you have sleep apnea. There are many conditions that can cause snoring, and sleep apnea is just one possibility. To get to the bottom of your snoring, check in with your doctor.
- Why is weight loss a recommended treatment for sleep apnea? Excess weight can be a complicating factor for sleep apnea for a few reasons. First, being overweight puts more pressure on your airway while you sleep, so obstruction is more likely. Additionally, obesity raises the risk for many of the health problems associated with sleep apnea, such as high blood pressure. Losing weight will reduce risks across the board and help you achieve better sleep in the process.
- Why can’t I tell that I’m waking up throughout the night? Sleep apnea can be a frustrating condition, because you may not ever witness it in action. However, the daytime symptoms of sleep apnea should be enough to warn you that something is wrong and alert your doctor.
- Will CPAP therapy be uncomfortable? CPAP machines have improved dramatically over the past few decades, becoming quieter, more compact and generally more comfortable to wear. However, there is likely to be an adjustment period with this device. You will need to get used to sleeping with a mask over the face, and you may need to adjust to the light humming noise that the machine makes. For most patients, a few nights of adjustment are needed to break the machine in, but more peaceful, restorative sleep then follows. If you have more questions about how does CPAP work, make sure to talk to a representative at the CPAP company.
John Shufeldt, MD, JD, MBA, FACEP is an emergency physician by avocation and entrepreneur at heart. He is an author, speaker, serial student, airline transport pilot and multidisciplinary entrepreneur, who has founded and operated several multi-million-dollar businesses.
Throughout all of his endeavors, John has maintained a relentless drive to help people rescript their future and reach their full potential.
His multifaceted experience as a physician, attorney, speaker and entrepreneur gives him rare insight into what makes a business succeed.
Over the years, John has come to realize that successful businesses don’t just happen. They succeed as a result of strong leadership, learning from failures and a well-executed business plan. An efficient organization is built on lean practices, proactive teams, a positive work environment and a solid foundation for continued growth.