The Importance of Treating Sleep Apnea

Understand the cause, risk factors, complications, and various treatment options for Sleep apnea

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that makes you stop breathing for short periods while you are asleep. There are two types of sleep apnea – Central and Obstructive. Central sleep apnea occurs when the brain does not send the right signals to your muscles that control breathing. In obstructive sleep apnea, you stop breathing because your throat narrows or closes. What most people have is obstructive sleep apnea which is what this article is about.  

People with sleep apnea have chronic snoring along with feeling tired even after a full night’s sleep. They stop breathing when they are asleep, which is often noticed by another person. Morning headaches, dry mouth, sore throat, difficulty staying asleep, excessive daytime sleepiness, and trouble thinking clearly are symptoms commonly experienced by people with Sleep apnea. 

What happens in obstructive sleep apnea that causes the throat to narrow or close? 

The muscles in the back of the throat that support the soft palate and other structures relax. The airway narrows or closes as you breathe in. Since you cannot get enough air, the oxygen level in the blood drops. This drop in oxygen level is sensed by the brain which briefly rouses you from sleep so that you can reopen your airway. You may not remember waking up because the awakening period is brief. This pattern may repeat all through the night every 5 to 30 minutes or more each hour reducing the quality of sleep. 

Excess weight with fat deposits around your upper airway, thicker necks, narrowed airways due to inheritance; adenoids; tonsils, having a family history, use of alcohol; sedatives, smoking are all risk factors that can increase the risk. 

What happens if sleep apnea is not addressed?  

Sleep apnea is a serious condition that may increase the risk of car accidents and other accidents due to inadequate quality sleep and daytime sleepiness. Moreover, people who have sleep apnea compared to ones who do not, have a higher prevalence of high blood pressure, heart attacks, and other serious heart problems. This occurs because of sudden drops in blood oxygen levels putting strain on the heart and blood vessels. Having sleep apnea increases your risk of developing insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.  

Frequent frustrations and sleep-deprived partners who sleep near you because of loud snoring are common. 

How is Sleep apnea diagnosed? 

“Sleep study” may be done if your doctor suspects sleep apnea based on your signs and symptoms. Sleep study may be done at home or in the sleep laboratory where you spend the night. You are hooked up to equipments that measure your heart rate, blood oxygen level, airflow and breathing patterns, and bodily movements. 

What are modifiable things that can help with Sleep apnea? 

  • Losing excess weight can help relieve constriction of your throat. Regular exercise can help with losing weight and help ease symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea. 
  • Avoid alcohol, sedatives, and tranquilizers which relax the muscles in the back of the throat narrowing the airway.  
  • Do not smoke. Smoking causes inflammation and fluid retention in the upper airway. 
  • Avoid sleeping on your back. Instead, get into the habit of sleeping on the side or abdomen. Sleeping on the back can cause your tongue and soft palate to rest against the back of your throat blocking the airway.  

What are treatments of sleep apnea?

  • Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is the most effective treatment and delivers air pressure through a mask while you sleep. This pressure keeps your airway passages open preventing apnea. 

If you are prescribed a CPAP machine by your doctor, be patient with using it. It may be uncomfortable initially and may take some time to adjust to using CPAP. There are newer versions of CPAP machines that are less noisy, smaller, and more comfortable. Talk to your doctor regarding this. People who use a CPAP machine feel more rested and feel better with an improvement in symptoms 

  • An oral appliance or mandibular advancement device is a device that you wear in your mouth to keep your throat open. CPAP is more effective than oral appliance. 
  • Surgery may be recommended in rare cases when nothing helps to keep the airways open.  

The takeaway message 

To improve the quality of life and to prevent serious complications, sleep apnea needs to be managed and not ignored. Start your journey to more restful sleep by making lifestyle changes and using CPAP.  

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