Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder that occurs when a person’s breathing is interrupted during sleep. People with untreated sleep apnea stop breathing repeatedly during their sleep, sometimes hundreds of times during the night.
There are two types of sleep apnea: obstructive and central. Obstructive sleep apnea, the more common condition of the two, occurs when the upper airway passage is partially or completely blocked during sleep. During an apneic episode, the chest muscles and diaphragm have to work harder in order to open the airway. Breathing resumes when a person gasps loudly, body jerks and wakes up. These episodes can reduce the flow of oxygen to vital organs, causing heart issues, and in severe cases, even death.
Central sleep apnea occurs when the brain fails to signal to the muscles to breathe due to an issue with the respiratory system (the airway remains open). This is usually because of a problem with the central nervous system.
Who is at risk of getting sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea can affect people of all ages, however, those who are overweight, and exhibit particular physical features (e.g. large tonsils, neck over 16 inches in diameter), as at a greater risk. Men are about twice as likely to suffer from sleep apnea than women. Abnormalities that reduce the diameter of the upper airway, such as nasal obstruction, or a small jaw with an overbite, is also a factor.
What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?
- Night sweats
- Mood swings (anxiety/depression)
- Daytime drowsiness/fatigue
- Sexual dysfunction
- Sudden awakening with a sensation of choking/gasping
- Difficulty concentrating/forgetfulness
How is sleep apnea diagnosed?
Sleep apnea is usually diagnosed by a board-certified sleep medicine physician. The physician will need to know the details about your symptoms, such as your sleep schedule and habits, if you make snoring or chocking noises in your sleep, how many times you wake up throughout the night, and how you feel in the morning. They will have to rule out if some other condition may be causing your symptoms, such a mental health disorder, or a reaction to a medication. The most common diagnostic techniques are:
- A Home Sleep Apnea Test (or sleep study) – This test allows you to sleep at home as you normally would, wearing equipment that collects information about your breathing while you sleep. You would have to follow instructions included in the kit in order to set up the testing equipment yourself. This device measures your breathing and blood oxygen level, heart rate, and how many apnea episodes you have experienced through the night.
- In-Lab Sleep Study – also known as a polysomnogram, this test measures your breathing, as well as brain waves and heartbeat while you sleep. It also records your eye movement, limb movement, and blood oxygen levels. This test usually performed at a specialized sleeping facility or a hospital. Usually much more expensive than a home sleep study, this test provides more accurate results, and able to diagnose various parasomnia disorders.
Speak with your doctor to determine which diagnosis tool will better work for you.
How is sleep apnea treated?
There are three treatment options for sleep apnea:
- Positive airway pressure therapy – CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine delivers constant airflow to people while they sleep. It is considered the most common and effective treatment for sleep apnea. However, it is often loud and uncomfortable. The device has to be calibrated properly and frequently adjusted. It also requires cleaning and maintenance. Failure to clean a CPAP mask may result in an upper respiratory infection.
- Oral Appliance – A mandibular repositioning device (MRD) is a custom-fitted mouthpiece that holds your jaw in a forward position while you sleep to expand the space behind your tongue. This helps keep your upper airway open, preventing apneas and snoring. It is a good alterative to the CPAP machine for patients suffering with mild sleep apnea.
- Surgery – Several surgical procedures and techniques can improve airway obstruction. This is often reserved for the most extreme cases of sleep apnea.