We’ve all complained about a partner’s snoring at one time or another — or had our own snoring complained about — but constant snoring could be a sign of a different condition: sleep apnea. What is sleep apnea, how can it affect you, and why should you be paying attention to the signs of sleep apnea?
What is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that causes you to pause your breathing multiple times during the night. It might last for a few seconds or as long as minutes, depending on the severity of the apnea. There are two different commonly diagnosed types of sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the airway becomes blocked or actually collapses during sleep — your breathing becomes shallower and any air that comes through causes loud snoring.
Central sleep apnea, on the other hand, occurs when the brain doesn’t send the proper signals to control the breathing. This can occur alone or in conjunction with obstructive apnea.
While sleep apnea can be a serious medical condition, it often goes undiagnosed. People don’t look at snoring as a possible medical condition, and won’t go to the doctor unless their significant other complains loudly enough. It’s believed that upwards of 10 million adults in the United States have sleep apnea that has been undiagnosed.
Side Effects of Sleep Apnea
In addition to snoring and breathing pauses, sleep apnea can increase the risk of a variety of different medical conditions, including:
- High blood pressure
- Heart attack/heart failure
- Worsen Arrhythmias (Irregular heartbeats)
In addition to these conditions, constantly waking when you’re breathing pauses can contribute to sleep deprivation. Lack of sleep can cause an increase in driving accidents or other work related accidents. Studies have found that driving while sleep deprived is nearly as bad as drunk driving — 24 hours without sleep slows your reaction times just like a 0.10 blood alcohol level.
This lack of sleep and lack of oxygen at night can also contribute to a weakened immune system, mood disorders, memory loss, and it can even accelerate tumor growth if you have been diagnosed with malignant or benign tumors.
How is Sleep Apnea Diagnosed?
Sleep apnea can only be diagnosed by a trip to the doctor. The appointment will start with a physical exam and going over your medical history. If your doctor suspects that you are suffering from sleep apnea, you will likely be scheduled for a sleep study.
A sleep study allows your doctor to study your breathing patterns, eye movement, and brain activity while you sleep. It is the most accurate way to diagnose sleep apnea. If you are uncomfortable sleeping away from home or in a lab setting, your doctor may recommend a home based sleep test with a portable monitor.
Sleep Apnea Treatment
Depending on the severity of your diagnosis, treatment of your sleep apnea could include:
- Lifestyle changes — Changing your diet and adding exercise to your lifestyle can help reduce your risk for sleep apnea. Stopping smoking and avoiding or reducing alcohol can also help to reduce that risk.
- Lose weight — According to the Mayo Clinic, getting down to a healthy weight for individuals who are overweight or obese can help reduce or even stop the symptoms of sleep apnea.
- Sleep Position — Sleeping on your side or stomach can help to reduce the airway blockages that might occur if you sleep on your back.
- Airway Pressure Devices — Also known as CPAP machines, these create positive airway pressure that makes it easier to breathe. They can either fit over the nostrils, or over the nose and mouth.
- Oral myofunctional therapy — Exercises for your facial and jaw muscles.
- Oral appliances — Mouth guards or other similar devices designed to keep your jaw forward to prevent airway collapse while you’re sleeping.
- Buteyko breathing method — Developed by a Russian physician, this breathing method teaches you to breathe through your nose rather than your mouth. It can also be used to manage asthma and other similar breathing problems, but this should be applied under the care and guidance of a physician.
Sleep apnea may not have a cure, but it is manageable with treatment. Lifestyle changes like the ones listed above could even help to reduce the severity of your symptoms to the point where CPAP machines or other equipment is no longer necessary.
It is important to look into treatment if you suspect you’re suffering from sleep apnea — or if your partner or significant other is complaining about your snoring or has noticed that you’re gasping frequently in your sleep. This is nothing to snooze at — untreated sleep apnea can be dangerous and lead to other health concerns.
Depending on the severity of your diagnosis, your sleep apnea could be managed with lifestyle changes but this is not something that you should attempt on your own. Any treatment changes should be discussed with your doctor first.