We’ve heard a lot about sleep apnea in recent years. As early as 2014, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine had noted that the rising prevalence of sleep apnea was posing a public health threat to the United States—citing at least 25 million adults who were suffering from the disorder. As awareness continues to grow, it’s important for people to really understand and be able to identify the signs and symptoms. While a CPAP machine can be an actual lifesaver for someone suffering from the disorder, it will have little to no effect on someone who is struggling with sleep for myriad of other reasons. By understanding the ins and outs of sleep apnea, you will be better equipped to find correct solution for your unique sleep troubles.
So what is it really?
According to the Mayo Clinic, there are three primary types of sleep apnea:
Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common form of the disorder. It happens when the throat muscles relax during the night, narrowing or closing your airway as you breathe in. This causes you to stop breathing entirely or simply take in less air. As your brain recognizes this inability to breathe, it wakes you up very briefly so that you can reopen your airway. As this process occurs, you’re likely to gasp or even choke—but because the awakening is so brief, you will usually have no memory of it in the morning. But because this can happen anywhere from five to more than 30 times an hour, it is nevertheless preventing you from achieving the necessary cycles of REM sleep that you need to wake up feeling refreshed.
Central sleep apnea is a less common variation on the disorder, in which your brain is simply not sending the proper signals to your breathing muscles during the night—which means that you are periodically making no effort to breathe. This results in a similar rousing from sleep, often with shortness of breath.
Complex sleep apnea syndrome is a combination of both obstructive and central sleep apnea and is the least prevalent type of the disorder.
What causes it?
There are a number of physical factors that can increase the risk of obstructive sleep apnea. Excess weight, thicker neck circumference and a narrowed airway (either due to throat width or enlarged tonsils) can all contribute to obstructing your breathing. Smoking can also increase the risk, as the habit increases the inflammation and fluid retention in your airway—while use of alcohol or sedatives can worsen the effect by relaxing the muscles of your throat. Consistent nasal congestion can also be a primary culprit.
The causes of this central sleep apnea are less external than with the obstructive type. Heart disorders, stroke and the use of narcotic pain medications can all increase your risk. Unfortunately, this means that lifestyle changes will have little effect on your ability to breath.
It’s important to note that older men have historically been marked with a higher risk for both types of sleep apnea variations—but that isn’t a hard and fast rule. In fact, according to Mary Foldvary-Schaefer, Director of Cleveland Clinic’s Sleep Disorders Center, post-menopausal women are just as likely to be affected by the disorder as men.
How can I be sure that’s what I have?
Sleep apnea can be difficult to self-diagnose, especially if you do not commonly sleep in the same bed or room as another person who may hear you. That is because the clearest signs of the disorder are loud snoring, gasping for air and episodes in which you stop breathing during sleep.
There are some other symptoms that may be easier to pinpoint on your own, including: waking up with a dry mouth or a morning headache, difficulty staying asleep, excessive daytime sleepiness and difficulty paying attention while awake. For some sleep apnea sufferers, the effects may be less obvious and may be accidentally misdiagnosed as depression—as sleep deprivation can sometimes mimic those symptoms.
New research has also shown that resistant hypertension may be a sign that you’re suffering from obstructive sleep apnea. A recent international study revealed that more than 80% of patients suffering from resistant hypertension also had this form of sleep apnea—and more than 25% of them had a severe case of it.
It’s important to remember: even if you know you’re a big-time snorer, there’s no need to immediately jump to the conclusion that you have sleep apnea. While it’s true that almost everyone with the disorder does snore, that doesn’t mean that everyone who snores has sleep apnea.
The best way to know for sure whether or not you have sleep apnea is to talk with your doctor about it. A specialist at a sleep disorder center will be able to give you the most accurate diagnosis through a nocturnal polysomonography test. Using sensors to monitor your heart, lung and brain activity, along with breathing patterns, movements and blood oxygen levels, this test will gather key data to determine whether or not you are actually ceasing to breath during the night. There are also variations on this test that can be done at home through portable monitoring devices.
What do I do about it?
For some people, sleep apnea has become synonymous with scary looking breathing masks. These machines, called continuous positive airway pressure or CPAP machines, work to promote airflow during sleep—and can be an effective treatment for sleep therapy. But that’s not the only solution. If you and your doctor decide that a CPAP mask is the best solution, you’ll be happy to know that today’s iterations are quieter and less obtrusive than ever before.
For some people with obstructive sleep apnea, lifestyle changes can make all the difference: whether that means losing weight or avoiding alcohol and sedatives before bed.
And depending on what’s causing the obstruction, there are a wide range of non-mask products that can still help minimize the impact of the disorder. An adjustable bed base can help alleviate nasal congestion—so could a new set of allergen-free sheets and pillows. A new body pillow may help you train yourself to sleep on your side rather than your back, which has been shown to help improve breathing.
While the reality of having sleep apnea may seem extremely frustrating, finding the correct solution to it could be the key to finally getting the sleep you need to live your best life.