What Is Sleep Apnea and What Symptoms Should You Look Out For?

If you’re snoring very loudly throughout the night and waking up tired even after you’ve had eight hours of sleep, you may be suffering from sleep apnea. This is a very common sleep disorder that affects about 17% of men and 9% of women over the age of 50. Research shows that almost 30 million Americans are suffering from a common form of sleep apnea.

Although it can often go unnoticed, sleep apnea is a potentially very dangerous sleep disorder. If left untreated, it can cause a number of health complications that can sometimes have a fatal outcome. It is thus important to know what is sleep apnea and how to recognize its main symptoms.

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder characterized by frequent involuntary breathing pauses that occur while you’re sleeping. This happens when the flow of air through the upper airway is blocked, due to either a physical problem or your brain’s inability to send the rest of your body a signal to breathe normally. These breathing pauses – also known as apnea events or apneas – typically last for at least 10 seconds.

The disorder got its name from the Greek word “apnos”, which means “not breathing”. As soon as your body realizes that you have stopped breathing, your brain will send out a signal that will trigger you to wake up and take a breath. After that, you’ll fall asleep again and may not even remember waking up the next morning.

Depending on the frequency of breathing interruptions, sleep apnea can take on the following forms:

  • Severe sleep apnea – 30 or more breathing interruptions per hour of sleep
  • Moderate sleep apnea – between 15 and 30 breathing pauses per hour of sleep
  • Mild sleep apnea – between 5 and 15 breathing cessations per hour of sleep

Experiencing fewer than five apnea events per hour is considered normal and isn’t a cause for alarm.

What Causes Sleep Apnea?

There are three main causes of sleep apnea:

  • The blocking of the airway due to excessive relaxation of the muscles at the back of your throat
  • Restricted airflow due to physical obstructions (e.g. fat storages) around the airway
  • Your brain’s inability to transmit appropriate signals to your breathing muscles

Several factors can increase your risk of sleep apnea, including the following:

  • Obesity and Excess Weight – The formation of fat storages around the airway can obstruct your breathing and increase your risk of sleep apnea.
  • Family History – Up to 40% of people suffering from sleep apnea have one or more family members who have experienced the same condition.
  • Gender and Age – Sleep apnea is almost two times more common in men than women. Although it can affect people of all ages, it is more likely to occur after the age of 50.
  • Smoking and Drinking – Smoking increases fluid retention and inflammation in the airway, which is why smokers are more likely to develop sleep apnea than non-smokers. Alcohol relaxes your throat muscles, which could cause a blockage in the upper airway.
  • Other Conditions – Health conditions like chronic sinusitis and cardiovascular diseases, as well as birth defects like Pierre-Robin syndrome and Down syndrome, are all risk factors for sleep apnea.

In addition, having had a stroke or congestive heart failure can also increase your risk of sleep apnea.

What Types of Sleep Apnea Exist?

Depending on the cause, there are three types of sleep apnea:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type of the disorder. It occurs when your throat muscles relax and block the passage of air through the upper airway.
  • Central sleep apnea is a less common form of the disorder. It occurs when your brain repeatedly fails to send the proper signals to your body’s breathing muscles.
  • Complex sleep apnea is a combination of the two main types of the disorder. It usually starts as obstructive sleep apnea. When the usual breathing machine treatment doesn’t deliver the expected results, doctors may also diagnose the underlying presence of central sleep apnea.

What Are the Symptoms of Sleep Apnea?

The most common symptoms of sleep apnea include the following:

  • Loud chronic snoring with frequent breathing pauses followed by gasping for air
  • Exhaustion and daytime sleepiness despite getting about eight hours of sleep the night before
  • Waking up with headaches and dry mouth
  • Depression, irritability, and a lack of sex drive
  • Having trouble focusing and remembering things
  • Shortness of breath
  • Voice changes

People who suffer from sleep apnea may also experience insomnia. If you have this disorder, you may also find yourself getting up at night and going to the toilet more often than usual.

If you notice one or more of these symptoms, you should visit your doctor for a checkup. They will examine your symptoms to determine if you actually have sleep apnea. They may also recommend a home sleep test or hook you up to a polysomnography (PSG) machine overnight to verify their findings.

How Is Sleep Apnea Treated?

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is by far the most effective treatment for sleep apnea currently available. While you sleep, you have to wear a mask attached to a machine that increases air pressure to the throat, thus preventing it from collapsing and blocking the airway.

If you only have mild or moderate sleep apnea, your doctor may recommend wearing a mouthguard at night to hold your jaw in the correct position while you’re asleep. In rare cases, your doctor might also recommend surgery.

To improve your chances of a full recovery, you will also have to make some major lifestyle changes (i.e. quitting smoking and drinking, losing weight, etc.) and treat any underlying medical condition that may be causing your symptoms.

The Final Word

Sleep apnea is one of the most common sleep disorders with about one in ten Americans experiencing it at some point in their lives. Although the symptoms might not be very severe, they shouldn’t be ignored.

Failure to treat sleep apnea can cause a number of health complications and increase your risk of several potentially life-threatening conditions. These include adult-onset asthma, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, and heart problems. To avoid them, you should visit your doctor as soon as you notice the first signs of sleep apnea.