What do you think of what you hear about sleep apnea? If it’s loud snoring and CPAP machines, you’re right, but it’s only half the picture. Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder marked by breathing interruptions, snoring and daytime fatigue even after a full night’s sleep. Around 22 million Americans live with sleep apnea.
Despite the prevalence, many people don’t really know what sleep apnea is or how serious it can be. Some who have it are never diagnosed or treated. And that’s a big problem. Not only does sleep apnea seriously impact your sleep health, but it can also lead to some serious health concerns. Here’s everything you need to know about sleep apnea symptoms and treatments.
Types of sleep apnea:
- Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) –– This is the one you’re probably heard the most about. With obstructive sleep apnea, the throat muscles relax and are unable to hold the airways open.
- Central sleep apnea –– This occurs when the brain doesn’t send signals needed to control breathing.
- Complex sleep apnea syndrome –– Also called treatment-emergent central sleep apnea. This type of sleep apnea describes a person who has both obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea.
Health Concerns of Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea stands in the way of a good night’s sleep. But it’s much more severe than that. A person who doesn’t get enough sleep because of sleep apnea is at a higher risk of falling asleep behind the wheel or causing an accident. They are also prone to gaining weight or regular headaches. Most importantly, they are more likely to develop a serious medical condition.
Complications of sleep apnea:
- Gout –– Scientists have found that people with sleep apnea are at a higher risk for developing gout. Gout is a painful form of arthritis characterized by swelling and redness.
- High blood pressure –– Sleep apnea includes sudden drops in blood oxygen levels, which increase the chances of high blood pressure.
- Heart problems –– High blood pressure and fluctuations of blood oxygen levels can also lead to increased heart disease levels or heart attacks.
- Type 2 diabetes –– OSA promotes insulin resistance because it alters glucose metabolism in the body, which increases the risk for type 2 diabetes.
- Stroke –– A common co-morid condition of stroke patients is sleep apnea. If sleep apnea goes untreated, recurrent strokes are possible.
Thankfully, just because sleep apnea can contribute to these conditions doesn’t mean that someone will automatically get them. Sleep apnea is treatable, and you can drop your risk even lower by seeking medical help.
March 2021 research has linked OSA to increased risk cognitive impairments and Alzheimer’s Disease. 52% of people with cognitive impairments also have OSA. You might be wondering, what exactly is cognitive impairment? It includes everything from memories to decision making to learning new things.
A different New York University study found that people with sleep apnea developed cognitive impairment ten years earlier than people without sleep apnea. Alzheimer’s onset also happens five years earlier for those with OSA. Does that mean that you will automatically develop cognitive impairments later in life? No! These are not definitive rules.
Higher Risk for Covid-19
If you have OSA, you’re at higher risk of Covid-19 infection, infection severity, and hospitalization rate. A September 2020 study showed more covid-19 hospitalizations for those with OSA compared to those without it.
Despite the research, OSA is still not officially listed as an underlying condition with a higher risk factor of Covid-19 infection by the CDC. We know that OSA is linked to several listed risk factors –– including BMI, diabetes, and age. More research is needed to determine if sleep apnea or the other contributing factors increase the risk for covid-19. Regardless if it is officially listed or not, OSA can potentially help identify or predict the severity of the infection.
How Do You Know If You Have Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea will look different from person to person. However, some common threads are telltale signs of sleep apnea.
Common causes of sleep apnea:
- Gender –– Sleep apnea is more common in men.
- Age –– The risk of sleep apnea increases after 40 and jumps even more after 60.
The American Sleep Apnea Association offers a simple quiz that can help you determine if you’re at risk for developing sleep apnea.
45% of people snore occasionally, and 25% of people snore regularly. So snoring is pretty common. It’s important to note that while snoring is a significant indicator of sleep apnea, not every person who snores has it. Snoring that’s indicative of sleep apnea is often louder, more intense and happens nearly every night.
OSA snoring is interrupted by periods of silence when the muscles relax and the airway is blocked. This interruption in breathing eventually wakes you up, and you get the gasping and loud snorting sounds. Sleep apnea snoring is often distinct enough that one of the main ways people discover they may have sleep apnea is because a loved one tells them about it. This is called “witness apnea.”
If a loved one mentions the potential of sleep apnea, it’s important to see a doctor right away. The history your partner or loved one can provide your doctor is essential to diagnosis.
Another huge indicator of sleep apnea is consistent daytime sleepiness. With sleep apnea, you are not getting the restorative benefits usually derived from sleep—leaving you tired for the rest of the day. Many people with sleep apnea fall asleep when they don’t mean to, which increases the risk of falling asleep behind the wheel.
Treatment Options for Sleep Apnea
Depending on your level of sleep apnea, a breathing machine may not be necessary. Lifestyle changes can help manage the condition.
- Lose weight and exercise–- Obesity is one of the many risk factors that lead to sleep apnea. Losing weight can help lower the number of episodes each night.
- Quit smoking and avoid alcohol –– Smoking makes sleep apnea worse. Alcohol and other sedatives can impact how your brain works and increase how often you experience sleep apnea episodes.
- Sleep on your side –– Sleeping on your back or stomach will make your sleep apnea worse. If you can, try to sleep on your side to keep your airways stay open.
The most common way to treat sleep apnea is with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy. This involves a CPAP machine covering your nose and mouth that blows air to keep your airways open while sleeping.
Many people complain about how loud and uncomfortable CPAP machines are to wear. It does take some time to get used to. However, the difference it makes for your quality of sleep makes it worth it. The Mayo Clinic advises practicing wearing the mask during the day or at times when you are awake.
Adaptive servo-ventilation (ASV)
ASV is one of the newer positive airway pressure (PAP) units available to consumers that continuously monitors and adjusts to correct the user’s breathing problems. The device can learn your breathing pattern and will store this information in a built-in memory bank. This allows the ASV to adapt to your breathing automatically as you sleep and prevent breathing pauses and interruptions.
We recommend consulting with your primary care physician before using this device, however, as it is not a fit for everyone.
New FDA Approved Device
What stands in the way of treatment for some people is the CPAP machine. There are a million excuses: it’s loud, you don’t like wearing it, it keeps your partner up at night. All of these are valid; however, you should never ignore the severity of sleep apnea.
The FDA recently approved a new device that will treat mild sleep apnea and only has to be worn for 20 minutes a day. Unlike other devices, it’s used during the day rather than worn at night. It’s called eXciteOSA and improves tongue muscle function so that the tongue doesn’t block the airway while sleeping.
Reports show that it reduced snoring by 20% in 87 of the 115 participants. Keep in mind, this is the first device of its kind, so more research is needed to truly prove the effectiveness of eXciteOSA. This device isn’t for everyone.
Here’s The Bottom Line
Sleep apnea is a serious condition that should not be ignored. It’s linked to several medical conditions like high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and strokes. If you wake up with headaches or are always tired, you might have sleep apnea. If that’s a possibility, see a doctor as soon as possible. You’ll notice significant improvements to how you feel once you make a few changes!