About Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea can be a serious sleep disorder characterized by pauses in breathing during sleep. Each episode (called an apnea) lasts long enough so that one or more breaths are missed. People who have sleep apnea stop breathing for 10 to 30 seconds at a time while they are sleeping, this can happen up to 400 times every night.
There are two main types of sleep apnea: obstructive apnea and central apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common kind. Nine out of ten people that have apnea have this type. Obstructive apnea occurs when something is blocking the trachea (the passage that is responsible for bringing air into the body). When you try to breathe, you can't get enough air because of the blockage. The most noticeable sign of obstructive sleep apnea is snoring.
Central sleep apnea is a much more rare form of apnea. This type of apnea is directly related to the body's central nervous system. Central sleep apnea is when you repeatedly stop breathing during sleep because the brain stops sending signals to the muscles that control breathing. Either the brain doesn't send the signal, or the signal gets interrupted
Sleep apnea can cause serious problems if left untreated. Sleep apnea increases your risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke. You are also more likely to have traffic accidents if you are driving when tired. If you have sleep apnea, it is extremely important to get treatment right away.
How do I know if I have sleep apnea?
Because many of the symptoms of sleep apnea occur while sleeping, the person you sleep with may be the first to notice it. They may notice heavy snoring or long pauses in breathing during sleep. Even if you do not remember waking up during the night you may notice excessive daytime sleepiness, morning headaches, awakening with a dry mouth or sore throat and/or difficulty staying asleep. You may also experience mood swings, forgetfulness, irritability and a decreased interest in sex.
Your doctor can diagnose sleep apnea based on family history, a physical exam, and results from a sleep study. Your doctor may also ask you a series of questions regarding bedtime and sleep habits, how sleepy you feel during the day, and how loudly and often you snore or make gasping or choking sounds during sleep. Your doctor may also want you to go to a sleep center for a sleep study to reveal what kind of sleep apnea you may have.
Is there anything I can do to improve my sleep apnea?
Yes, simple lifestyle changes can dramatically improve or even eliminate symptoms of sleep apnea. The following steps help many people who have sleep apnea manage it better.
- Lose weight- Being overweight is a risk factor for sleep apnea. If you're overweight, ask your doctor for advice on how to safely loose weight.
- Avoid alcohol and sleeping pills- Alcohol and certain medications can cause throat muscles to relax more than normal. Because of this, airways can get blocked. Alcohol and medications also make it harder for your brain to "alert" your body to the lack oxygen.
- Stop smoking- Smoking can make sleep apnea worse because it can irritate your throat and make you cough more at night.
- Exercise- Exercise helps maintain a healthy body weight, assists with losing weight, and it also contributes to healthy sleep.
- Maintain regular sleep habits- Sticking to a regular sleep pattern will help you get the right kind of sleep. You need to experience the full cycle of sleep to feel well-rested.
- Sleep on your side- Sleeping on your side rather than your back can improve sleep apnea symptoms, because sleeping on your back allows gravity to pull on the tissues at the back of your neck and throat. This can cause the upper airway to narrow or even collapse.
How is sleep apnea treated?
The most effective method of treating sleep apnea is a continuous positive airway pressure machine, also called CPAP. This requires wearing a mask over your nose during sleep that blows air at a prescribed pressure. The necessary pressure is usually determined by a sleep physician after reviewing your sleep study results. The mask will keep your airway open by adding pressure to the air you breathe. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the airway becomes narrow and the muscles relax naturally during sleep, which reduces oxygen in the blood and causes awakening from sleep. The CPAP machine was designed to prevent these apneas from happening by delivering a stream of compressed air via a hose to a nasal pillow, nose mask or full-face mask, splinting the airway so that the breathing is unobstructed.
CPAP treatment is a highly effective treatment for obstructive sleep apnea. Many patients will notice improvements in quality of sleep and quality of life after only a single night's use. The patient's sleep partner will also notice improvements in sleep quality due to their partner's reduction of loud snoring.
CPAP treatment may cause side effects in some patients. Some side effects include:
- Dry eyes, skin, mouth and nose
- Stomach bloating
- Soreness and/or irritation of the skin on your face
If you are having any of these side effects, work with your sleep specialist to learn how to reduce them. Some ideas are:
- Use a nasal spray to relieve your dry, stuffy, or runny nose
- Make sure your CPAP settings are adjusted properly
- Adjust the size of the mask to fit your face
- Add moisture to the air as it flows through the mask
- Use a CPAP machine that slowly increases the air pressure as you fall asleep
Because sleep apnea is a chronic health condition, ongoing care is necessary in order to maintain CPAP therapy.