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What to Know About Sleep Apnea

Poor sleep and groggy days might mean you have sleep apnea. Learn about symptoms and why it’s important to diagnose and treat sleep apnea.

Some of the symptoms of sleep apnea — loud snoring, snorting and gasping for air — are more likely to trouble your bed partner than you. Other symptoms, like daytime sleepiness, may go on for years without you realizing the cause. But the dangers of sleep apnea are real. If left untreated, it may raise your risk for high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. Daytime drowsiness can also affect your quality of life and your work performance.

What is sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder in which there are repeated pauses in breathing or shallow breathing during sleep. There are two types and they can occur together:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea. The most common type. Soft tissue in the back of the mouth relaxes and blocks the airway during sleep. It is common in adults who are overweight. The more obese you are, the more likely you are to have the condition. Having enlarged tonsils also can be a factor in the condition, especially in children.
  • Central sleep apnea. The area of the brain that controls respiration does not send the correct signals to the breathing muscles during sleep.

 
What are sleep apnea symptoms?
Symptoms of sleep apnea may include:

  • Not all people who snore have sleep apnea, but people with obstructive sleep apnea often snore, and usually very loudly
  • Choking or gasping, and tossing and turning during sleep
  • Frequent nighttime urination
  • Feeling tired the next day
  • Experiencing morning headaches
  • Having trouble concentrating

 
How is sleep apnea diagnosed?
To find out if you have sleep apnea, your doctor will first ask about your symptoms. This may include talking with someone who shares your bed or room. Based on your history, your doctor may do a physical exam and, if needed, refer you to a sleep specialist. These doctors are trained to evaluate and treat sleep disorders. The specialist may suggest a sleep study done overnight at a sleep center. A limited study may be done at home using portable equipment.

While you sleep, the study monitors:

  • Vital signs, such as breathing, heart rate and blood pressure
  • Brain activity
  • Eye movement
  • Breathing movement
  • The amount of oxygen in your blood

 
How is sleep apnea treated?
Treatment depends on the severity of your condition and may include:

  • Reaching and maintaining a healthy weight. Losing even a small amount of weight can go a long way to relieving sleep apnea
  • Avoiding alcohol and sleep medications, which can cause sleepiness, relax the throat and cause snoring.
  • Not sleeping on your back.
  • Oral devices. Mild sleep apnea can sometimes be treated successfully with an oral device that your dentist or orthodontist custom fits. Devices typically adjust your lower jaw and tongue to keep your throat open while you sleep.
  • Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). This machine causes air to flow gently through a tube attached to a facemask that you wear while sleeping. The airflow exerts positive pressure that keeps the back of the throat open.
  • Surgery. For more severe sleep apnea, surgery can help by unblocking the airway

 

By Susan G. Warner, Contributing Writer

 

Sources:

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sleep and sleep disorders. Sleep and chronic disease. Accessed: 02/18/2015
  • National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Sleep apnea. Accessed: 02/18/2015
  • UpToDate. Overview of obstructive sleep apnea in adults. Accessed: 02/18/2015
  • American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Sleep apnea — overview & facts. Accessed: 02/18/2015

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