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Sleep Apnea: More Serious, and Easier to Treat, Than You Think

Sleep apnea forces millions of Americans from their beds night after night — and these people don’t even have it!

Rest assured (if you can) that your raucous nighttime snoring and daytime irritability and fatigue may be symptoms of sleep apnea. And you’re not the only one who’s suffering.

What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a breathing disorder that causes the sleeper to repeatedly stop breathing for ten or more seconds, 30 or more times per 8-hour sleep period. Sleep Apnea Syndrome (SAS) is characterized by numerous apneic (which means "not breathing") episodes accompanied by loud snoring and daytime sleepiness. These episodes are caused by obstruction or collapse of the airway.

Sleep apnea prevents oxygen from getting to the brain and body. This lack of oxygen not only interrupts a person's sleep but it also affects the entire body, including a person's heart or other organs. Not getting enough oxygen night after night can lead to high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, heart attacks or stroke.

Consequences of Sleep Apnea

  • Poor, restless sleep. Sleep apnea constantly interrupts the REM (rapid eye movement or deep sleep) cycle, and the pauses in breathing inhibit adequate oxygen supply during sleep. This lack of sleep and oxygen causes other serious problems.
  • Bad days and nights for you and everyone around you. Heavy snoring is the most common symptom, but sleep apnea can also cause behavior problems, memory loss, confusion, daytime sleepiness, sexual dysfunction, anxiety and depression. And everyone around you suffers. Your snoring may keep your bed partner, and, if it’s really loud, your whole family, awake at night. By day, related mood disorders may keep your family and your coworkers on edge.
  • Left untreated, death. Untreated sleep apnea causes physical and emotional stress — a major risk factor for high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke.

Take Your Symptoms Seriously

  • Snoring and sleep apnea are serious, so don’t brush off or deny complaints about your snoring or your behavior. Besides, treatment may be easier than you think:
  • Talk to your doctor and ask your family to help you pinpoint your nighttime and daytime symptoms, as well as other behaviors you may not be aware.
  • Sleep on your side. Studies show that sleeping on your side can decrease snoring and apneic episodes by nearly 50 percent.
  • Lose weight. Obesity can create obstructive fat deposits in and around the airway.
  • Kick the habit. Sleep studies show that smoking cessation can reduce or even eliminate snoring and apneic episodes.
  • Avoid alcohol and sleeping pills before bedtime. These substances tend to cause over-relaxation of the surrounding airway muscles, which can cause the airway to collapse.
  • Seek non-surgical medical treatments. Allergies can trigger sleep apnea by swelling airway tissues. A prescription steroid nasal spray may reduce swelling and open the airway to make breathing easier — day and night! Supplemental oxygen combined with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy, a more aggressive non-surgical treatment, maintains the airway with a special mask worn while sleeping. More serious cases may require bi-level positive airway pressure, which combines a nasal CPAP mask with a ventilator that delivers alternating levels of gas flow.
  • When nothing else works, explore surgical options. If you don’t respond to other treatment, corrective surgery to remove enlarged tonsils or adenoids or to trim the uvula may solve the problem. Only the most extreme cases require a tracheotomy, in which a surgically implanted tracheal tube keeps the airway open.

In many cases, you can control sleep apnea with changes in your habits, such as proper allergy treatment, weight reduction and smoking cessation. So make those changes, and if your symptoms don’t disappear or significantly subside, then talk to your doctor about more aggressive treatments.

Most importantly, acknowledge your symptoms and take action to improve your life, your health and your relationships with the gift of a lifetime of better sleep — for everyone you love!

Reviewed: May 26, 2005

Posted: May 2004

© 2018 American Association for Respiratory Care