Sleep Apnea 101

If you or a loved one snores, it could be more than just annoying; it could be sleep apnea. This is a medical condition that can literally stop people from breathing dozens of times each night. In fact, when combined with other medical conditions, it can even be fatal. Here's what you need to know about sleep apnea and more importantly, your treatment options.

What Causes Sleep Apnea?

There are three different types of sleep apnea. One is obstructive sleep apnea, which is where the muscles of the throat collapse on themselves. Central sleep apnea is where the sleeping brain essentially doesn't "remember" to breathe, something that is normally just reflexive and doesn't require conscious—or unconscious—thought. Complex sleep apnea is when a person has both obstructive and central sleep apnea.

What Are the Symptoms of Sleep Apnea?

In addition to loud snoring and snorting, sleep apnea symptoms include:

  • Repeated nighttime waking
  • Awakening gasping for air
  • Awakening with a sore throat or a dry mouth
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Daytime inattentiveness
  • Daytime drowsiness
  • Your partner telling you they suspect you quit breathing while sleeping

Who Is at Risk of Sleep Apnea?

People who are overweight, smoke cigarettes, have chronic sinus issues, are male, are middle-aged or older, use alcohol before bed or take sleeping pills or other sedatives, or have a family history are all factors that increase a person's risk of developing sleep apnea. Having had a stroke or heart disease can also increase the likelihood.

How Is Sleep Apnea Diagnosed?

If your physician suspects you may have sleep apnea, they will send to a sleep center. This is an overnight stay where you will be hooked up to machines that will monitor things like respiration, heart rate, blood oxygen levels, your brain and lung activity, and limb movement. You will also be physically observed by technicians. The results of these tests are fairly straight-forward in determining if you have sleep apnea and if so, what type.

How Is Sleep Apnea Treated?

It is imperative that if you are found to have this condition, you are treated for it. In addition to the symptoms it causes, sleep apnea can also play a role in the development of adult-onset diabetes, heart problems, and liver problems. Additionally, partners may refuse to sleep with the person with sleep apnea or will become irritable from their chronic sleep deprivation due to the snoring. Obviously, this can result in relationship troubles.

Depending on the type of sleep apnea, the severity, and any associated complications, your physician may recommend any of the following sleep apnea treatments.

  • Changes in your lifestyle, such as losing weight or quitting drinking alcohol
  • Seeing an ear, nose, and throat specialist
  • Surgery

Your doctor may also recommend that you use a continuous positive airway pressure device (CPAP). This is a machine that requires you wear a face mask each night. It works by elevating the pressure of the air you are breathing, which forces the breathing passages to stay open.