Sleep apnea is a medical condition characterized by pauses in breathing or instances of shallow or infrequent breathing during sleep. These episodes can occur as often as several times per hour, and they may last for a few seconds to a few minutes.
Why is apnea harmful?
Sleep apnea may negatively affect the quality of your sleep, but it is also associated with a number of other health problems.
Symptoms of sleep apnea include:
• Snoring loudly and frequently (typically in men)
• Excessive daytime sleepiness and fatigue (in both genders)
• Panic or fear while sleeping (in some cases, people struggle to breathe when they are asleep; this can lead to feelings of panic and fearfulness during the night)
• Morning headaches (from snoring that cuts off oxygen supply overnight)
• Mood changes such as irritability or anxiety (a change in moods may occur when you’re not getting enough restorative sleep, either due to apnea itself or simply from excessive daytime fatigue.
• High blood pressure (which increases your risk of heart attack and stroke)
• Type 2 diabetes
• Memory problems or loss of focus (which can adversely affect daily life, including at work)
• Fractured relationships with friends and family (due to irritability or moodiness)
Approximately 18 million U.S. adults have been diagnosed with sleep apnea, which is roughly 7% of the population. Approximately 80 percent of those cases are found in people who are clinically obese. Sleep apnea tends to run in families, so if you have a parent or sibling who struggles with this condition you may be more likely to develop it yourself. What causes sleep apnea?
In adults, the prevalence of sleep apnea is estimated to be 2%–4%; however, many cases go undiagnosed. In children, its incidence is much higher: About 5% have symptoms severe enough to require treatment.
People with sleep apnea often are not aware that these episodes are happening at night because the brain shuts down the body’s ability to think clearly and remember when it perceives lack of oxygen in the blood. As a result, people with untreated sleep apnea don’t remember waking up throughout the night gasping for air.
• A doctor may suspect you have sleep apnea if your snoring tends to be loud and accompanied by periods where your breathing stops while you’re sleeping. If your symptoms match these descriptions, schedule an appointment with your doctor.
• Your doctor may ask that you attend a follow-up appointment at a sleep centre; here, you’ll undergo further testing such as overnight polysomnography (a sleep study). Some doctors might also recommend supplemental oxygen monitoring.
Treatment for sleep apnea typically includes lifestyle changes (such as losing weight, quitting smoking or reducing alcohol) and behavioural therapies (including oral appliances that reposition the lower jaw during sleep). If these steps don’t help enough, doctors may prescribe continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), which delivers steady streams of pressurized air into your nose. This helps keep your airways open while you’re sleeping.
Yes; supplemental oxygen therapy is sometimes an option for people who can’t use or won’t use a mask-like device at night. There are also other medical devices available or under development that might be used to treat milder forms of sleep apnea.
If you are concerned that you or someone you know may have sleep apnea, talk to your doctor. There are many treatment options available, so you don’t have to struggle with this condition alone.