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Have you ever heard of sleep apnea? This disease is quite common, even though only one in four people who suffer from it are actually diagnosed. It affects men and women of all ages, but it's mostly common among middle-aged men. According to the Sleep Apnea Trust, this disease affects one in every 25 middle-aged men – and even though it doesn't sound like something you should worry about, it is actually quite a serious problem.
This disorder also causes daytime drowsiness, which can seriously affect both your work and your social life, as well as your ability to drive safely.
So, what is sleep apnea (also called sleep-disordered breathing)? It is a disorder where the throat closes or narrows while one is sleeping, repeatedly interrupting one's breathing. This leads to a fall in oxygen levels in the blood, causing the brain to suddenly wake you up. This though this happens hundreds of times during the night, you are not aware of it. However, you end up not sleeping peacefully and it might cause you to feel tired the next day.
More than twenty-eight million of residents in the United States have this disorder, and 80% of them aren't even aware of it. About 38,000 of them die in their sleep every year, as the sleep-disordered breathing exacerbates a certain circulatory problem, which causes a stroke or fatal heart attack.
The Symptoms of Sleep Apnea
As already mentioned, most people aren't even aware that they have this disease, and it's often a family member or their partner that notices that something's wrong. These are some of the most common sleep-disordered breathing symptoms:
- A very loud snoring
- Sleepiness and loss of energy when you wake up
- Painful headaches in the morning
- Restless sleep – inability to sleep in a proper, relaxed way
- Insomnia and recurrent awakenings
- Waking up with a dry or very sore throat
- Waking up frequently during the night with a gasping or choking sensation
- Sleepiness while you drive the car
- Sudden mood changes, forgetfulness, and a reduced interest in sex
- Poor concentration
- Going to the toilet frequently during the night
Having one of these symptoms doesn't necessarily mean that you have sleep apnea, but a combination of a few of them might. In that case, it is very important that you visit your doctor as soon as possible.
The Health Risks of Sleep Apnea
The total number of deaths related to sleep apnea is something difficult to determine, but thanks to research (like the one carried out by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine), we now know that this disorder can lead to the following complications:
- An increased risk of having a stroke
- Death due to heart disease
- Insulin resistance and glucose tolerance, leading to diabetes
- Gastric Reflux (also called GERD)
- Weight gain and inability to lose weight
- Increased risk of cancer
- Higher blood pressure
- Heart attacks
Dr. Neomi Shah and her colleagues at Yale University found in their 2014 research, that
“when a person has sleep apnea for 4 or 5 years, his or her risk of having a heart attack is increased by 30%”.
To come to this conclusion, Dr. Shah's research monitored over a thousand patients who were being evaluated for sleep-disordered breathing, and more than half of those people had at least 15 low-oxygen events per one hour of sleep.
This, as you can see, sounds very serious. If you suspect that you or your family member might be suffering from this disorder, make sure to go to a doctor for a proper diagnosis, as it just might save your life.
Diagnosing the Sleep Apnea
There are two main ways to diagnose this serious disorder – after observation at the sleep clinic, or at home by wearing a special testing device while sleeping.
- Seeing Your Doctor
When you go to see your doctor, he'll probably ask you some questions about the symptoms, like if you're often falling asleep against your will. He will also measure your blood pressure and examine a sample of your blood, to rule out other conditions that might be the cause of your tiredness.
The next step would be an observation at the sleep center, where they'll calculate your BMI and measure down the circumference of your neck (overweight people usually have large necks, which increases the risk of having sleep-disordered breathing).
After that, the professionals at the sleep clinic will need to observe your sleep, and you'll either have to spend the night there or be given some equipment to take home with you for monitoring. You will, of course, have to bring it back for analysis.
- Testing at Home
Don't worry about this option, because the staff at the sleep center will explain to you exactly how to use it. This kit may include devices such as a breathing sensor, bands to be placed on your chest, sensors that monitor your heart rate, and oxygen sensors that you put on your fingers.
Once the observation process and analysis are over, the specialists will determine the severity of your sleep apnea (mild, moderate, or severe), and prescribe the proper treatment.
Treatment of Sleep Apnea
The treatment for sleep apnea may include making some serious lifestyle changes, using various breathing devices while sleeping, or surgery.
- The Lifestyle Changes
In most cases, you will just be advised to make healthy lifestyle changes, like losing weight if you're obese, stopping smoking if you're a smoker, or limiting the consumption of alcohol. In some cases, the doctor might even tell you to stop using any sleeping tablets or sedative medication.
Sleeping on your side might also help to relieve the symptoms of sleep apnea (read more tips about falling asleep fast). And, if you have an old mattress for years we recommend you to check some of the top rated beds for people with sleep apnea.
- CPAP – Continuous Positive Airway Pressure
People with moderate to severe sleep apnea usually need to use a CPAP device, which is a small pump that looks like a mask that covers your nose and mouth, delivering a supply of compressed air. Even though wearing a CPAP during sleep might feel uncomfortable in the beginning, people usually get used to it after some time, and their condition improves significantly.
- MAD – Mandibular Advancement Device
This is a dental appliance that's used to treat mild cases of sleep-disordered breathing and looks very similar to gum shields. The mandibular advancement device is worn over the teeth when sleeping, holding the jaw and the tongue in such a way that it increases space in the back of your throat, thus reducing narrowing of the airway. It is recommended to have a MAD made specifically for you, as the off-the-shelf models might feel really uncomfortable inside your mouth.
Surgery, as a solution to sleep apnea, is not something that's routinely recommended and it is used only as a last resort when every other kind of treatment has failed. The reason behind this is that these surgeries carry the risk of some serious complications. There is a range of surgical treatments that have been used to treat sleep apnea, like the tracheostomy, tonsillectomy, adenoidectomy, and bariatric surgery.
As you can see, sleep apnea is a very serious disorder, and yes, it might lead to some complications that could result in your death. This is exactly why you should go and see the doctor if you think that you have any of the symptoms that we mentioned, and get proper treatment if the specialists find out that you actually do have sleep-disordered breathing.
There are also some steps that you can take to get a good night's sleep and make living with the sleep-disordered breathing easier, like participating in regular physical activities, avoiding caffeine, and developing a bedtime routine that would consist of warm baths, dimmed lights, and herbal teas – anything that could help you to relax and prepare for a good night's rest.