Do you snore? Even if your answer is “no” or “I don’t know” you may be a silent victim of sleep apnea--a common sleep disorder that can increase your risk of serious health conditions including heart attack and stroke.
With sleep apnea your breathing pauses or becomes very shallow while you sleep. You may stop breathing for over a minute, sometimes hundreds of times an hour during the night. This depletes your brain and other vital organs of oxygen.
Sleep apnea is usually a chronic condition but one that often goes undiagnosed as symptoms can be mild or attributed to other causes. These symptoms include a headache or dry/sore throat upon waking, feeling tired or irritable during the day, having trouble paying attention or remembering and being overweight.
If left untreated, sleep apnea can:
- Increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, obesity, and diabetes
- Increase the risk of, or worsen, heart failure
- Make arrhythmias, or irregular heartbeats, more likely
- Increase the chance of having work-related or driving accidents
In addition, sleep apnea can negatively affect performance in everyday activities, such as at work and school, while driving or operating machinery, as well as academic achievement in children and adolescents.
Types of Sleep Apnea
The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea. In this case, the airway has collapsed or is blocked during sleep. When you try to breathe, any air that squeezes past the blockage can cause loud snoring.
Obstructive sleep apnea is more common in people who are overweight, but it can affect anyone—even small children.
Central sleep apnea is a less common type of sleep apnea. This disorder happens if the brain doesn't send the correct signals to your breathing muscles. Central sleep apnea often occurs with obstructive sleep apnea, but it can occur alone. Snoring doesn't typically happen with central sleep apnea.
Central sleep apnea can occur in anyone. However, it's more common in people who have certain medical conditions or use certain medicines.
Who is at Risk?
Sleep apnea can affect anyone at any age but there are some risk factors, including:
- Male gender
- Being overweight
- Being over the age of 40. As many as 1 in 10 people over 65 have sleep apnea.
- Having a large neck size (17 inches or greater for men and 16 inches or greater for women)
- Having large tonsils, a large tongue, or a small jaw bone
- Having a family history of sleep apnea
- Gastroesophageal reflux, or GERD
- Nasal obstruction due to a deviated septum, allergies or sinus problems
Diagnosis and Treatment
If you have symptoms of sleep apnea, discuss it with your doctor who may refer you to a specialized sleep clinic for testing. The most common sleep test, called a polysomnogram—or sleep study—records specific physical activities while you sleep. If sleep apnea is diagnosed, you may be asked to return to the lab for further evaluation to determine the best treatment option.
Treatment options vary depending on the severity of the problem but may include: losing weight, avoiding alcohol or sleeping pills, changing sleeping position, stopping smoking, using a breathing or dental device, or having surgery to correct a physical obstruction or abnormality.
Mild forms of sleep apnea (five or fewer episodes during an hour) can often be treated at home with minor lifestyle changes. The most common treatment for moderate to severe sleep apnea, a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, can help you breathe normally but must be used every night or symptoms will return. Current surgical procedures are only used in the most severe cases and may not provide a complete cure. Some patients may still need to use a CPAP machine following surgery.
The important message here is to recognize the symptoms of sleep apnea and speak with your doctor about your concerns. An early diagnosis can improve quality of life now and help prevent serious health problems later.
National Heart Lung and Blood Institute
University of Maryland Medical Center