Do you snore when you sleep? Does your partner complain that your loud snoring makes it hard for them to sleep? Do you wake up tired, even after a full night’s sleep? These are some of the symptoms of sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a serious disease, but it is treatable. Read on to learn more about this condition, how to recognize it, and what you can do about it.
What is sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder. In patients with sleep apnea, breathing is disrupted during the sleep, up to 30 times an hour or more. The result is that the brain, along with the rest of the body, is starved of oxygen.
The most common type of sleep apnea is Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA). In patients with OSA, the disruption of normal breathing occurs when soft tissue at the back of the throat collapses, blocking the airways.
While sleep apnea can occur in anyone, even children, there are risk factors that significantly increase your likelihood of suffering from OSA. You are more likely to have OSA if you are:
- Over the age of 40
- Have a large neck size (17 inches or greater in men, 16 inches or greater in women)
- Have a large tongue or tonsils, or have a small jaw bone
- Have a family history of sleep apnea
- Suffer from gastroesophageal reflux, or GERD
- Have a deviated septum, allergies, sinus problems, or other nasal obstructions
What are the effects of sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder, so it’s most immediate effect is excessive tiredness during the day due to inadequate sleep. However, is sleep apnea is left untreated, it can lead to other serious health problems. Patients with sleep apnea are at increased risk for high blood pressure, stroke, and diabetes. It can also lead to heart problems including irregular heartbeat, heart attacks, and heart failure. The lack of sleep can also have physiological and psychological effects that include headaches, depression, and worsening ADHD.
The primary effect of sleep apnea is poor sleep, so patients who suffer from sleep apnea may also suffer from the full range of conditions and impairments that result from sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation is known to cause a decrease in cognitive abilities, including reduced ability to use logic, difficulty with short-term and working memory, and decreased reaction time. These can be serious impediments in school or at work and can make driving more dangerous.
How is sleep apnea diagnosed?
The first step toward diagnosing sleep apnea is recognizing the symptoms of sleep apnea. Symptoms of sleep apnea include:
- Loud snoring
- Occasionally waking up with a choking or gasping sensation
- Waking up with a sore or dry throat
- Excessive sleepiness during the day
- Sleepiness while driving
- Waking up with headaches
- Restless Sleep
- Mood changes, forgetfulness, or decreased sex drive
- Insomnia or recurrent awakenings
If you have these symptoms, you may be suffering from sleep apnea. However, sleep apnea must be diagnosed by a medical professional. The most common test for sleep apnea is a polysomnogram, or sleep study. These are usually done while sleeping overnight in a medical facility. In some less complicated cases, home sleep tests are now available.
During a sleep study, a number of devices will be placed on your body to record brain and other activity while you sleep. Surface electrodes will be placed on your head and scalp to record brain and muscle activity. Belts will be placed around your chest and abdomen to record breathing. An oximeter will be placed on your index finger to measure oxygen levels in the blood.
Once you are hooked up to these measuring devices, you will go to sleep in a private room in a hospital or medical facility. While all that equipment may sound uncomfortable, most patients fall asleep relatively easily and quickly. A technician will be in a nearby central monitoring area where they will monitor sleeping patients.
Once the study is over, the results will be sent to a sleep specialist for examination and diagnosis.
What if I have Sleep Apnea?
If you have sleep apnea, you will need to do something to prevent the cessation of breathing at night. Treatment options range from basic lifestyle changes to surgery. The first thing you can do after being diagnosed with sleep apnea is to attempt lifestyle changes in ways that reduce your risk of obstructive sleep apnea.
One of the main suggestions for patients diagnosed with sleep apnea is that they lose weight. Obesity is a substantial risk factor for sleep apnea, and sometimes just losing weight can relieve the apnea in mild cases. Other factors that can contribute to sleep apnea are the use of alcohol or sleeping pills, which tend to relax the muscles at the back of the throat, potentially causing their collapse during sleep. Other lifestyle changes aim to decrease throat and nasal congestion. If you smoke, the smoking can increase swelling in your upper airway, which will worsen both snoring and sleep apnea. Stopping smoking can help reduce both snoring and apnea. Some patients can reduce apnea by avoiding allergens that may cause swelling of the airways. These include pet dander and dust, as well as food allergies such as dairy and wheat. Some changes are as simple as switching sleeping positions, such as not sleeping on your back.
If lifestyle changes are not working, the most common treatment for sleep apnea is a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine. A CPAP machine has a mask that is placed over the nose and sometimes also the mouth during sleep. The machine provides continuous airflow to the nose that helps keep the airways open during an inhale.
For less severe cases of sleep apnea, some patients may benefit from specialized dental devices. These devices are designed to push the lower jaw forward, preventing the tongue and other soft tissue from falling back and blocking the airways during sleep.
If these treatments are not successful at treating the apnea, surgery may be a recommended last resort. If you have a deviated septum, enlarged tonsils, or a small lower jaw with an overbite, surgery may be able to correct these problems and treat the sleep apnea. One common type of surgery is surgery to correct sinus or nasal issues, such as a deviated septum. In some cases, enlarged tonsils may be removed. In severe cases, an ENT may suggest surgery to remove part of the soft tissue at the back of the throat and the palate, which increases the width of the airway and makes it harder to obstruct. In the case of issues with the jaw or other unusual circumstances, facial surgery may also be recommended.
Getting Treatment for Sleep Apnea
Diagnosis and treatment of sleep apnea often require communication between multiple specialists. If you have symptoms of sleep apnea, the best place to start is with your primary care physician. If your primary care physician suspects you might have sleep apnea, they will likely refer you to a sleep specialist for further study and diagnosis. Once the sleep apnea is diagnosed, you may be referred to an ear, nose, and throat specialist for treatment.
If you have been diagnosed with sleep apnea, Peachtree Ear, Nose, and Throat Center may be able to help. Peachtree Ear, Nose, and Throat Center is a TrustDALE certified business, so you know that they are among the best in the field. They focus on patient-doctor relationships and personalized care. It’s easy to schedule an appointment, even without a referral, and Dr. Elaina George, a board certified Otolaryngologist, performs every patient examination herself.
If you need an ENT to help with sleep apnea or any other disease of the ear, nose, and throat, look no further than Peachtree Ear, Nose, and Throat Center. Dale Trusts Peachtree Ear, Nose, and Throat Center, and so can you!