Sleep apnea can lead to serious medical conditions if left untreated. The disorder causes a person's breathing to stop and start during sleep and there are three forms of sleep apnea, each with varying degrees of severity.
The most common form is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) with an estimated 26% of 30-to-70-year-old Americans suffering from the disorder.
In mild cases. The condition very often goes unnoticed and untreated. Persistent snoring is often a symptom as is feeling tired even after a full night's rest.
When you have obstructive sleep apnea, your air passages become temporarily blocked when throat tissue relaxes and collapses during sleep. These pauses in breathing, called apneas, can occur very frequently during sleep – dozens of times.
Although snoring and feeling tired are common symptoms of the condition, they are not necessarily definitive proof of sleep apnea.
There are a number of associated OSA symptoms and sufferers may experience some or all of the following:
- Persistent or loud snoring
- Daytime tiredness
- Reduced energy levels
- Difficulty in concentration
- Headaches upon awakening
- Frequent urination at night
- Decrease in libido and possible erectile dysfunction
- Elevated blood pressure
The American College of Cardiology regards obstructive sleep apnea as one of the major causes of high blood pressure which can potentially lead to cardiovascular disease.
Because sleep apnea reduces the oxygen your body gets during the night, this condition increases the risks for a range of serious medical conditions.
Causes of OSA
There are numerous causes of OSA ranging from physical attributes to the usage of alcohol and tobacco.
The main causes include:
- Anatomy of the jaw and mouth
- Excess weight and obesity
- Hormonal imbalance
- Nasal congestion
- Sleeping position
- Use of sedatives (including alcohol)
Research also strongly suggests that genetics plays a role as many OSA sufferers have immediate family members who also have the condition.
Because mild sleep apnea often goes unnoticed, it can be difficult to even recognize there is a problem – and often it is not diagnosed by a doctor.
Having one, two or more of the recognized symptoms should be indicative of something being amiss and the need for further investigation.
The examining physician will conduct an examination which will include:
- Details of symptoms experienced
- Full medical history
- Family history of sleep disorders
- Physical examination of head, neck, mouth and throat
In cases where sleep apnea (or other sleep disorder) is suspected, the doctor may initially recommend a home sleep test, monitoring a patient's sleep pattern over the course of a night.
If the patient has neurologic symptoms then a polysomnogram is often carried out in a laboratory where brain waves are measured in an attended environment..
Best Methods of Treatment
Simple lifestyle changes -- or a different sleeping position -- may be enough to treat mild sleep apnea, but this is not always the case.
Depending on the precise cause (or causes) and the severity of the problem, the best methods of treatment for mild sleep apnea could be any of the following or a combination of several:
- Altering Sleeping Position - Something as simple as sleeping on the side rather than on the back can greatly reduce the number of sleep apnea incidences during the night.
- Weight Reduction - Even a small weight loss can improve breathing and reduce the effects of OSA.
- Physical Exercise - Regular exercise improves blood circulation and heart rate.
- Quit Smoking - Cigarettes have an adverse effect on blood circulation and this, consequently, increases the chances of suffering from sleep apnea.
- Oral Device - Oral devices are similar to a dental retainer, and restrict tongue movement or support the jaw can be of benefit in combating sleep apnea.
- Nerve Stimulator - When switched on at night, a device implanted under the skin stimulates the nerves and muscles and helps to prevent OSA from occurring.
- Surgery - Certain medical conditions such as enlarged tonsils or a deviated septum may necessitate a surgical procedure to rectify the problem.
- CPAP Therapy - Continuous Positive Airway Pressure, or CPAP, machines have been shown to be of huge benefit to sleep apnea sufferers.
A CPAP machine delivers purified air through a mask during sleep and is used to great effect by millions of sufferers to reduce and alleviate the harmful effects of sleep apnea.
How Does CPAP Therapy Work?
A CPAP device forces pressurized air into a mask through which you breathe as normal while sleeping. The pressurized air keeps the air passage open as it forces any blockages back to their correct positions.
With all obstructions removed, there is no interruption in breathing and no stopping and starting which is the hallmark of sleep apnea.
Mild sleep apnea sufferers can dramatically reduce and even eliminate the problem by using a CPAP machine to help get a proper night's sleep.
Recent research recommends the use of these machines for even the mildest cases of sleep apnea. A 2020 study in The Lancet found that even as little as three months of CPAP therapy dramatically improved sleep quality, and the quality of life, for many mild sleep apnea sufferers.