Sleep Apnea: An Overview

What sleep apnea is, what causes it, and when to go to a doctor

Millions of Americans struggle with sleep apnea – and some don’t even know it. 

Alongside insomnia, sleep apnea is one of the most common sleep disorders among adults. But what is it? How does it affect your health and when should you seek help? 

In this article, we’ll answer those questions. 

What is sleep apnea?

According to Mayo Clinic, sleep apnea is “a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts.” This cessation in breathing is often enough to stem or stop oxygen intake – and the pauses can be as short as a few seconds or as long as a few minutes.

There are three kinds of sleep apnea, each with its own set of characteristics:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)
  • Central sleep apnea (CSA)
  • Treatment-emergent central sleep apnea

For now, we’ll focus on the first two – OSA and CSA – which have different symptoms. 

According to Sleep Foundation, the symptoms for obstructive sleep apnea are the classic symptoms one might think of when sleep apnea comes to mind: loud snoring, breathing disturbances (such as pauses breathing, gasping for air, breathing speeds up or slows down, etc.), daytime sleepiness aka hypersomnia, dry mouth, morning headaches, restlessness during the night, and more. 

For central sleep apnea, however, snoring is not always present. Like its sister disorder, it shares several symptoms: abnormal breathing patterns, nighttime urination (2 or more times per night), daytime sleepiness, restlessness during the night, morning headaches, and more. Its unique symptom, however, is more concerning: sudden shortness of breath or chest pains during the night. 

As for health repercussions, both kinds of sleep apnea can lead to a variety of unsavory outcomes, such as accidents due to drowsy driving, heightened risk of a whole host of cardiovascular diseases, memory problems, higher risk of depression and mood disturbances, and more. 

You might be thinking, “But their symptoms are so similar, then why are there different types of sleep apnea?” Because of their causes, which we’ll talk about next:

What causes sleep apnea and how is it treated?

Obstructive sleep apnea is caused by obstructed airways (makes sense, right?). When a person goes to sleep, their muscles completely relax. When a person with OSA goes to sleep, their relaxed throat muscles put pressure on the airways, causing them to narrow or collapse. 

The chance of developing OSA is affected by a myriad of risk factors, including age, sex, weight, and more. Here are some of the most common risk factors associated with OSA, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine and Sleep Foundation:

  • Age – as one grows older, so too grows the risk of developing OSA (roughly 60 or 70 years old). 
  • Sex – those assigned male at birth are more likely to develop OSA. For those assigned female, the risk peaks around peri- and post-menopause.
  • Weight – obesity is an extremely common risk factor. The higher the person’s BMI, the higher the chance of developing OSA. 
  • Thick neck – people with thick necks may have narrower-than-normal airways, so OSA becomes more likely. 

On the other hand, central sleep apnea is caused by the brain’s inability to send the proper signals to the muscles that control breathing during sleep. Sleep Foundation states that CSA is usually the result of another medical problem, like an injury to the brain stem, organ failure, stroke, or excessive growth hormone production. Like OSA, age and sex are risk factors, in addition to the use of opioids and spending time in high-altitude environments (since oxygen levels aren’t as high). 

Diagnosis for either kind of sleep apnea usually starts with a sleep study. Your doctor can refer you for a sleep study (either done at home or in a dedicated sleep laboratory at your local hospital) if you have stated concerns about sleep apnea. This sleep study measures how many hypopneas (decreases, but not total collapses, in air flow) and apneas you have per hour of sleep, then transmits the information to your doctor. 

Your doctor interprets the information from the sleep study, then decides whether or not to make the diagnosis. In many cases, diagnosis of sleep apnea requires a person to experience 5 or more hypopneas in an hour that last longer than 10 seconds each. 

Treatments for sleep apnea

If you get diagnosed with sleep apnea, don’t go running out to buy the first CPAP machine you see. So what are some of those other treatments?

OSA Treatments

Treatments for OSA can include lifestyle changes, such as sleeping on one’s side or stomach instead of their back, weight loss, avoiding alcohol, sedatives, and other substances that can decrease breathing. 

Some more drastic measures include surgery, the creation of a specialized dental device, and continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) or other PAP machine therapy. PAP machines help keep a person’s airways open during sleep. Should you need PAP therapy, then your doctor will help you find a good mask and help train you on how to operate your particular PAP machine. 

CSA Treatments

As for CSA, it’s far less common and, therefore, more difficult to treat. Treatment often revolves around finding the issue that causes the abnormal breathing – that could be enough to fix the problem entirely. However, if the symptoms persist, PAP treatments can be used while further attempts to fix the underlying issue are undertaken. 

Sleep Support

If you need a new mattress to help support your sleep quality, try a Wolf mattress! Our mattresses give great support to side and stomach sleepers, so try incorporating a new mattress as part of your treatment plan against sleep apnea. 

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Fort Wayne, IN

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