Sleep apnea is a disorder that can be highly debilitating and potentially fatal. It can be the leading cause of many other diseases and conditions: heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, just to name a few. As more and more studies show how important sleep is to the functioning of the human body and brain, it’s important that people educate themselves on the warning signs, diagnosis, and treatment options of sleep apnea. Properly diagnosing and treating sleep apnea can not only save a person’s life, but it can improve it dramatically by vastly improving the quality of sleep. As a result, a patient will be in better health, more focused, have more energy, and have a generally better quality of life.
Sleep Apnea Affects Millions
Somewhere between 18 to 22 million US residents — over 6% of the population — suffers from some degree of sleep apnea. This means that one out of every 15 people has sleep apnea. Over half of the people who suffer from the condition are undiagnosed and, as such, aren’t treating their condition. Of those 18 to 22 million, six million are affected by moderate to severe sleep apnea, which could result in hospitalization or worse. Of those six million, half a million are undiagnosed.
A person of any age can be affected by sleep apnea. Studies show that up to one-quarter of all infants between the ages of two and eight are affected by sleep apnea. They may experience inattentiveness, mood swings, hyperactivity, and poor impulse control. For children, snoring is the most common symptom. Obesity is also a strong risk factor for children in developing sleep apnea.
There are over a quarter of a million tonsillectomies done on children every year in an effort to reduce symptoms of sleep apnea caused by tonsils obstructing airflow. Children suffering from sleep apnea also have a substantially higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease later in life.
People who are obese and men over 40 are at the most risk for sleep apnea. Loud and persistent snoring could be an indication of sleep apnea. Keep in mind, however, that not everyone that snores has the disorder.
The Effects of Sleep Apnea
There are currently three variations of sleep apnea: central, complex and obstructive. Obstructive Sleep Apnea is the most prevalent and also the easiest to treat. OSA is a result of the airway being completely blocked by tissues at the back of the mouth and throat.
While sleeping, a person may stop breathing more than once a minute. Each time the airway is constricted and the person stops breathing, it’s considered an “episode” of apnea. A patient suffering from OSA can experience 400 or more episodes every night.
When a patient experiences an episode, blood oxygen levels are reduced and the body is stressed. These episodes also disrupt sleep patterns, so sufferers never get enough REM sleep necessary for the human body to function. Without proper sleep, a person can experience an inability to focus, depression, daytime drowsiness, irritability, overeating, and myriad other serious health problems.
Sleep apnea is most often diagnosed via a sleep study. A sleep study is performed in a controlled lab environment where a patient will stay overnight and their sleep is analyzed. Sleep experts will monitor their blood oxygen, brain waves, respiration rate, as well as the number of episodes of apnea the patient experiences.
Sleep apnea can cause issues for the sufferer’s partner, as well. Episodes of sleep apnea can cause someone to experience restlessness or spells where he or she can wake up gasping and coughing. This can prevent the partner of a patient from getting a full night’s sleep, which, in turn, can cause some of the same problems as those experienced by the patient.
Someone who is suffering from sleep apnea and not undergoing treatment is four times more likely to have a stroke and three times as likely to develop heart disease — the number one cause of death in the US. Sleep apnea is a serious disorder and it can lead to other harmful diseases and conditions, such as:
- Difficulty learning
- Memory loss
- Fatigue syndrome
- Type 2 diabetes
Sleep apnea can also seriously affect a person’s ability to earn an income. Drowsiness caused by lack of sleep can impair a person’s ability to operate machinery or vehicles. For example, truck drivers who’ve been diagnosed with sleep apnea must undergo treatment, otherwise, they can’t be permitted to drive.
Moreover, patients with OSA can have difficulty with pain medication as these drugs can relax the very same tissues that are problematic in those suffering from sleep apnea.
While it’s not always the most effective, the least invasive treatment is a device called a sleep guard which a dentist makes to an exact fit. The device is an oral appliance that fits in the mouth of a patient while they sleep. Sleep guards prevent episodes of sleep apnea from occurring by clearing the airway of soft tissues. The device is small and easy to use and doesn’t require much in the way of maintenance.
Another means of treating sleep apnea is through the use a CPAP: a continuous positive airway pressure device. A CPAP is a machine consisting of a unit that draws in and compresses air, which is then sent through a tube to a mask that the patient fits over their nose. The CPAP prevents sleep apnea episodes by pushing a consistent flow of air through the airways. The device can be effective for many but there are quite a few downsides:
- The compressor noise disrupts sleep for the patient and/or bed partner
- The tube can accumulate condensation that can travel up the patient’s nose
- Maintenance of a CPAP is time-consuming
- Some patients report experiencing claustrophobia
- Patients are required to sleep on their back
- The machine is difficult to travel with
- A CPAP requires electricity
If a CPAP or a sleep guard fails to alleviate the symptoms of sleep apnea, the patient may require surgery.
Anyone that’s suffering from OSA and having trouble falling and staying asleep should discuss different treatment options with their physician. It’s important to note that sleep aids can actually make apnea worse, so patients should discuss these with their doctor before taking them. With that said, there are a number of things that a person suffering from OSA can do to reduce the severity, including:
- Quitting smoking
- Refraining from drinking excess alcohol or any alcohol before bedtime
- Getting enough exercise
- Losing weight, if obese
- Sleeping on the side instead of the back