Is It Insomnia or Sleep Apnea?

There are many reasons why some people find it nearly impossible to enjoy a satisfying night of rest. While some of these are psychological (such as stress), others can be caused by a physical condition including obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). 

Sleep apnea occurs when there is an air blockage in the upper airway -- causing a pause in breathing during sleep. This typically happens often during the night, but you won’t be aware of it.

Insomnia occurs when a person has difficulty falling or staying asleep – and is very aware they are awake. Insomnia can be short-term or a chronic problem.

Both sleep apnea and insomnia can negatively affect your quality of life and cause health problems if they’re not treated.

This is why speaking with a doctor is crucial in order to understand the factors causing your sleep problem – and getting the treatment you need.

Understanding Insomnia

Daily stress, schedule changes or other issues can cause short-term insomnia. Long-term chronic insomnia is often more difficult to explain. Older people are more likely to develop chronic insomnia, especially women. Pain, depression, medications, poor sleep habits, and chronic stress can increase risk of insomnia.

Symptoms include fatigue, difficulty concentrating, moodiness, increased risk for accidents. 

If not treated, complications can develop – and health conditions can worsen – including asthma, chronic pain, depression, anxiety, inflammation, obesity and substance abuse. 

Specific medications can be used to treat insomnia, and lifestyle changes can also help – including establishing better sleep habits. 

Symptoms of chronic insomnia can resemble those of sleep apnea. That’s why it is important to discuss your sleep problems with your doctor – to get a proper diagnosis and treatment. 

The goal is a full night’s restorative sleep, every night, as your body requires this for optimal health.

Understanding Sleep Apnea

If your doctor has mentioned sleep apnea, it’s important to understand this condition. 

A common question concerns the “apneas” – what are they, what causes them, and how often do they occur during the night? 

Sleep Apnea at a Glance

This condition results from a narrowing of the airways while asleep. It may be caused by physical issues (such as obesity) or it could be rooted within the function of the brain (known as central sleep apnea). Some primary symptoms include:

  • Awakening numerous times throughout the night.
  • Loud and excessive snoring.
  • Insomnia for no apparent reason.
  • Waking up to sensations of breathlessness or choking.
  • Feeling extremely tired and/or irritable throughout the day.
  • Difficulty concentrating during the day.
  • Drowsy driving.

A sleep specialist will examine these and several other variables in order to obtain an objective diagnosis. There are likewise numerous medical devices that can provide a very real sense of relief (these will be discussed a bit later in this article). 

What are the Long-Term Risks of Sleep Apnea?

Unfortunately, obstructive sleep apnea can lead to consequences other than simple insomnia. Here are some of the risks associated with OSA to appreciate:

  • Obesity (due to a lack of energy to remain physically active).
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure) and cardiovascular disease.
  • An increased risk of developing Type 2 (adult-onset) diabetes.
  • Mental issues such as stress, anxiety and even depression.

It is now clear to understand why speaking with a specialist is crucial if you hope to avoid the potentially serious consequences mentioned above. Having said this, OSA can also be classified in accordance with its severity. What do the experts have to say and how is frequency related to the type of treatment that you obtain?

An Overview of the Apnea-Hypopnea Index

One diagnostic tool that doctors will employ to determine the severity of your condition is known as the Apnea-Hypopnea Index (AHI). The AHI is simply a measurement of how many apnea "events" occur during the overnight hours. 

When participating in a sleep study, you will first be provided with a baseline AHI. This represents the average number of events that take place during the overnight hours. Specialists can then define the severity of your obstructive sleep apnea in accordance with these readings. Here is a breakdown of frequency in relation to time:

  • Normal: No more than five events per hour.
  • Mild OSA: Between five and 15 events per hour.
  • Moderate: Between 15 and 30 events.
  • Severe: More than 30 episodes each hour.

We should also note that this grading system was created for adults. Children who experience more than five events per hour should always be provided with targeted treatment solutions. 

The good news is that modern medical equipment will often record the number of events that take place during the overnight hours – and this may be accomplished while sleeping in your own bed.

This information can then be sent to a sleep specialist in order to obtain additional advice or to modify your current treatment regimen. This leads us into the next important point. 

How can Sleep Apnea be Treated?

To be clear, experiencing insomnia from time to time is normally nothing to be overly concerned about. Problems can nonetheless arise if you feel that your sleeping patterns are impacting your daily life and ultimately, your overall health. 

In the event that you have been diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea, one of the most effective treatment options involves a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine. 

This device will provide you with a steady supply of oxygen while asleep through the use of a face mask and hose. The main intention here is to keep your airways open so that your breathing does not become compromised. Some contain additional features such as built-in humidifiers and auto-adjust settings to provide superior levels of comfort.

The type of CPAP machine may likewise vary in accordance with the severity of your sleep apnea. There are many different makes and models on the market, so it is normally quite simple to find the most appropriate unit. The majority of individuals will experience a significant amount of relief with the help of a CPAP. 

Can Lifestyle Habits Play a Role?

Similar to other medical conditions, the severity of your obstructive sleep apnea can also be affected by lifestyle habits. Here are some professional tips and tricks to follow:

  • Try to establish a normal sleeping schedule.
  • Avoid foods or drinks containing caffeine before going to bed.
  • Do not rely upon sleep aids such as alcohol or sedatives.
  • Close down tablets and cell phones in the early evening, to avoid blue light.
  • Obtain an adequate amount of exercise on a regular basis.
  • Embrace a healthy diet.
  • If possible, try not to sleep on your back (this can cause the number of episodes to increase).

Although implementing these changes may take a bit of time, the positive results are well worth the initial effort. 

Always Seek Professional Guidance and Support

Whether you experience a mild form of OSA or you instead suffer from multiple episodes on a nightly basis, there are many ways to address this condition. 

As always, the first step involves speaking with a trained professional. He or she can perform a sleep study in order to better determine the most appropriate solution. The main takeaway point is that there is no reason to continue living with this condition when targeted treatments are available.