What is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep Apnea (or Apnoea as it is spelt in the United Kingdom) is a breathing disorder associated with sleeping and more specifically snoring. It is also known as Obstructive Sleep Apnea. This condition is caused by the relaxation of the respiratory muscles and the subsequent blockage of the airway at the back of the throat, which is sucked to the closed position by the action of breathing whilst asleep. The result is a lack of oxygen which eventually causes the body to react sharply in a reflex reaction to prevent death through suffocation. This reaction may be observed by a sleep partner as a long silence in the breathing of the sufferer, followed by a gasp for air, which then repeats itself many dozens of times throughout the night.
Who Suffers from Sleep Apnea – what are the causes?
The condition occurs most frequently in overweight middle aged men, but may also be experienced by children, especially those with enlarged tonsils. It is estimated that up to 4% of the overall population suffers from some degree of Sleep Apnea. The main causes are obesity, nasal obstructions such as
adenoids, and respiratory depressants such as alcohol or strong analgesics. Symptoms of Obstructive Sleep Apnea The sufferer may not be aware that they have Sleep Apnea. It is often diagnosed by a sleeping partner who is disturbed by the symptoms, which may be summarised as:
- Loud snoring
- Breathing pauses (over 10 seconds in duration)
- Daytime sleepiness
- Unrefreshed sleep
- Restless sleep
- Morning headache
- Night time choking
- Reduced libido
- Swollen ankles
- Feeling of ‘drunkenness’ in morning
The effort and shock of the sudden strenuous forced breathing, although brief and violent does not usually wake the sufferer, although it is sufficiently disruptive of the sleep pattern to cause problems with drowsiness and tiredness the following day.
Why sleep Apnea is very bad news for heart health
A person with Obstructive Sleep Apnea habitually deprives their brain and arterial system of oxygen. This is known as Hypoxia, and it can lead to raised pulmonary arterial pressure. In some cases it can even lead to sudden death from Cardiac Arrest. It increases a person’s risk of having a heart attack or dying by 30% over a period of four to five years, according to a new study carried out at Yale University. The study which involved 1123 patients over a 5 year period, also found that the risk of developing heart disease or dying was proportional to the initial severity of the Apnea.
What to do if you suspect you may have sleep Apnea
If you believe you may be suffering from Sleep Apnea, or your sleeping partner has identified some of the symptoms listed above you should consult your Doctor, as this is a serious medical condition that should be investigated. It is likely that your blood oxygen levels will be monitored by a non-invasive process known as Oximetry. This may be followed up by a visit to an overnight sleep disorder clinic, where you can be monitored by special diagnostic machines whilst sleeping, to determine the extent of the problem.
I’ve been diagnosed with Sleep Apnea – what treatments are available?
The diagnosis is generally confirmed if there are more than 15 ‘Apneas’ or disruptive episodes in any one hour of sleep. The treatment recommended by the Doctor will most likely depend on the cause of the condition, but may involve one or more of the following:
- Surgery to the throat or nasal areas
- Lifestyle change to reduce obesity, alcohol or drug use reduction
- Use of an artificial sleep aid such as a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) device which is worn by the sufferer continuously whilst asleep
- Use of a dental device which fits over the teeth and changes the geometry of the mouth to improve airflow (Mandibular Advancement Device)
- Nasal Strips
- Herbal remedies