If you’re struggling to sleep properly and feeling fatigued, and aren’t sure why, it’s worth considering if it’s sleep apnea. Sleep apnea (also spelled apnoea) is a surprisingly common issue that isn’t that well-known but has quite a large impact. It’s a chronic condition that disrupts your sleep and can exacerbate existing anxiety, even causing panic attacks. There are a few different types, but the most common is known as obstructive sleep apnea.
This is where the airway either gets blocked or collapses during your sleep. There’s also central sleep apnea, which is where your brain simply forgets to send the right signals – it’s literally forgetting to breathe for a while whilst you’re asleep. Both of these can highly increase your risk of arrhythmia, heart conditions, strokes, and other problems, so it’s definitely worth catching early. Here are some common signs and symptoms (both for men & women) that you might have sleep apnea. This article isn't meant to be a self-test – please consult your doctor if you think you have sleep apnoea.
Dry Mouth Upon Waking
Do you often wake up needing to desperately drink some water? This can be caused by sleeping with your mouth open. There are lots of reasons that you might do this, but one of them is if you’re having trouble getting enough air and end up breathing through your mouth to compensate.
Headaches and Excessive Tiredness
If you don’t recall waking during the night, but still wake up with a pounding headache, you’re probably not sleeping as well as you think. A recurrent morning headache is a sign that something is wrong with your sleeping patterns – it likely means you’re not getting enough ‘deep sleep’ to satisfy you, instead of remaining in or being jolted back to a more shallow, less restful form of rest. Similarly, feeling tired (hypersomnia) the day can have a similar cause.
Painful Jaw & Teeth
You might find that you wake up with a sore jaw and sensitive teeth. If so, this can be a symptom of a few things – a common one is stress or grinding during the night – but when combined with a few others on this list, it might be sleep apnoea. It happens when you’re trying to get enough air and straining the muscles to do so.
Unless you’ve manage to wake yourself up snoring, it’s more likely a partner or friend has told you this. Sometimes snoring is just snoring, but frequent, loud snoring is often a sign of obstructive sleep apnoea. If you only snore in certain situations – when you’ve got a cold, if you’re drunk or have hay fever – then you’re probably fine, but if it’s near constant, then you may want to get it looked at.
Waking Up Gasping
This is one of the most obvious symptoms and one that causes anxiety in many people. If you find yourself waking up choking or gasping for air, you definitely should go to a doctor as soon as possible. This happens when you haven’t been able to breathe enough, and means you aren’t getting enough oxygen – something that can have severe long term effects.
Thankfully, if you’ve noticed these symptoms, you’ve got time to prevent/treat it. The top ways to prevent it include quitting smoking, avoiding alcohol, sleeping pills and sedatives, and avoiding caffeine and heavy meals within two hours of going to bed. Additionally, exercising regularly and losing weight can reduce the chances of obstruction, and practicing breathing exercises can strengthen the muscles in your airway. Try to sleep on your side whilst elevating your head slightly in order to reduce the chances of obstruction.
If it’s bad enough that you feel you need treatment, talk to a doctor and don't let the stress build up – options include breathing or dental devices, masks (machines), and surgery. But these are usually recommended after trying other less extreme methods.