Sleep Apnea Basics: 4 FAQs Answered
If your bed partner complains about your loud snoring—or you frequently wake yourself up with a snort—a condition called sleep apnea could be the culprit.
“Sleep apnea is a condition where you briefly and repeatedly stop breathing during sleep,” says Meeta Singh, M.D., a sleep medicine expert at Henry Ford Health System. Pauses can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes and they may occur upwards of 30 times an hour. The end result: your body and brain don’t get the oxygen needed to function properly. Not only that, you get far less restful sleep.
There are different types of sleep apnea: obstructive (which occurs when throat muscles relax), central (which results when your brain doesn’t send proper signals to the muscles needed for breathing), and complex (which happens when you have a mix of both types). Left untreated, all three types can lead to myriad health problems, not the least of which is poor sleep.
Here are four frequently asked questions about this common condition:
- Who’s at risk? Depending which type of sleep apnea you have, the following factors may place you at risk:
- Being overweight or obese.
- Having a narrow jaw or enlarged tonsils.
- Taking certain medications, including narcotics, sedatives or tranquilizers.
- A large neck size (17 inches or more for men and 15 inches or more for women.)
- Drinking excessively, and smoking.
- Nasal congestion.
- High blood pressure, previous stroke or other heart and brain problems.
- What are the complications? Untreated sleep apnea can lead to a variety of issues from high blood pressure to heart failure. It may also contribute to depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and perhaps not surprisingly, poor performance in school and on the job. The root cause of these problems: insufficient shuteye. When your breathing becomes shallow, you often move out of deep sleep and into light sleep. The resulting sleep deprivation wreaks havoc on your health and quality of life. You may be irritable, depressed and unable to stay awake at work or, worse, while driving.
- What can you do before seeking medical assistance? While sleep apnea is a potentially life-threatening condition, it doesn’t always require medical intervention. In fact, some people can resolve the issue by losing weight, and making other lifestyle adjustments. Avoid alcohol close to bedtime, and steer clear of sedative medications, which can worsen sleep apnea. If you smoke, take steps to break the habit. Similarly, if you suffer from allergies, use a nasal spray at night to keep your airways open. Even training yourself to sleep on your side instead of your back can help you breathe easier.
- What treatments are available? Sleep apnea is a chronic condition that requires ongoing care and monitoring. The gold standard treatment is a CPAP, or continuous positive airway pressure, machine. This small box fits over your mouth and nose and blows air into your throat to keep your airway open. Other options include dental devices (which pull the jaw forward to open the airway), or surgery (which removes obstructing tissue at the back of the throat). Other options may be available, too, depending on your unique circumstances. Talk to your doctor about your situation and what option might be right for you.
Unfortunately, sleep apnea often goes undetected. “Doctors can’t diagnose the condition during a standard office visit or with a simple blood test. Instead, patients have to wear monitoring devices or participate in a sleep study,” says Singh. It’s up to you to alert your doctor to your poor sleep. If you experience shortness of breath or awaken choking and gasping for breath, or if you’re excessively sleepy during the day, ask about sleep apnea.
As for snoring, not everyone who has sleep apnea snores and not everyone who snores has sleep apnea. However, loud snoring is one indication of a possible obstruction, so if you or your partner snore loudly during sleep, it makes sense to get checked out.
To find a doctor or sleep specialist at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).