Sleep Apnea is a common disorder in which one stops breathing or takes shallow breaths while sleeping. These pauses can last from seconds to minutes, sometimes more than 30 times an hour. Normal breathing usually starts again with a choking sound, a gasping for air, or sometimes even a loud snort. Disruption in sleep quality is one of the leading causes of daytime sleepiness. Untreated, it has been linked to increased risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, heart failure, worsened existing arrhythmia (irregular heart beats), stroke, obesity, diabetes, and more.
Sleep Apnea often goes undiagnosed because doctors can’t diagnose the condition during routine office visits, and no blood test can detect it. Since it only occurs when sleeping, most people don’t know they have it. The first person to notice the signs is often a family member or bed partner.
There are two main types of Sleep Apnea: Central Sleep Apnea (CSA) and Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA). CSA is the less common type in which a medical condition or medications cause the area of the brain that controls breathing to not send the correct signals to the muscles that control your breathing. CSA patients usually do not snore. Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) occurs when the airway collapses or becomes blocked during sleep causing the patient to stop breathing for a period of time. The sound that is produced mimics that of choking or gasping for air. OSA is much more common than CSA.
Sleep apnea is treated with lifestyle changes, mouthpieces, breathing devices, and sometimes even surgery.
Diagnosing Sleep Apnea
We diagnose Sleep Apnea based on medical and family histories, physical exams, and sleep study results. If you think you have a sleep problem, consider keeping a sleep diary for 1-2 weeks. Write down how much you sleep each night, how alert and rested you feel in the morning, how sleepy you feel at various times during the day, and if a family member has let you know that you snore and/or make gasping or choking sounds during the night. Bring this diary with you to your next medical or dental appointment. Your doctor will also want to know if anyone in your family has been diagnosed with sleep apnea, and will do a physical exam of your mouth, nose, and throat for large or extra tissues. 3D imaging is helpful in screening for larger airway physiology.
The doctor may recommend a sleep study. This is a test that measures how well you sleep, how severe the problem is, and how your body responds to these sleep problems. Sleep studies are the most accurate tests for diagnosing sleep apnea.
Treating Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea is treated with lifestyle changes, mouthpieces, breathing devices, and sometimes even surgery. Treatment may improve other medical problems linked to sleep apnea such as high blood pressure, and reduce your risk for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Lifestyle changes and mouthpieces may relieve mild to moderate sleep apnea.
Recommended Lifestyle Changes:
- Avoid alcohol and medicines that make you sleepy.
- Lose weight if you are overweight or obese.
- Sleep on your side to keep your throat more open.
- Keep nasal passages open with nasal sprays or allergy medicines.
- If you smoke, quit.
- A mouthpiece (may be recommended) to adjust your lower jaw to help keep your airway open.
Moderate to severe cases will need breathing devices such as a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) or BIPAP (Bilevel Positive Airway Pressure) devices, and/or surgery. These devices have masks that fit over your mouth and nose, or just over your nose. They gently blow air into your throat to help keep your airway open as you sleep. Surgery may benefit some severe cases. The goal is to widen the breathing passages.
Sleep Apnea can be very serious, even life threatening. Following an effective treatment plan can improve your quality and length of life significantly; improving your overall health, happiness, and the quality of your sleep, as well as that of your family members.