Sleep apnea is a common but serious sleep disorder where your breathing is briefly interrupted when you’re asleep. If you have sleep apnea, you’re probably not aware of these short breathing pauses that occur hundreds of times a night, jolting you out of your natural sleep rhythm. All you know is that you don’t feel as energetic, mentally sharp, or productive during the day as you should do. The most common type of sleep apnea—obstructive sleep apnea—occurs when the airway is blocked, causing pauses in breathing and loud snoring. Since sleep apnea only occurs while you’re sleeping, you may only discover you have a problem when a bed partner or roommate complains about your snoring. Though you may feel self-conscious about it or tempted to just make light of your snoring, it’s something you shouldn’t ignore. Sleep apnea can take a serious toll on your physical and emotional health.
Missing sleep can take years off your life. Long-term complications of sleep apnea can include an increased risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, depression, memory problems, viruses and sexual dysfunction.
Many people with sleep apnea use a breathing mask to help control symptoms, but this won’t stop the underlying problems associated with sleep apnea, including inflammation of the throat muscles. Fortunately, sleep apnea can be treated and prevented by making lifestyle modifications, including losing weight, reducing inflammation, improving your diet and starting a regular exercise routine.
Signs and symptoms of sleep apnea
It can be tough to identify sleep apnea on your own, since the most prominent symptoms only occur when you’re asleep. But you can get around this difficulty by asking a bed partner to observe your sleep habits, or by recording yourself during sleep. If pauses occur while you snore, and if choking or gasping follows the pauses, these are major warning signs that you have sleep apnea.
Major warning signs
- Loud and chronic snoring almost every night
- Choking, snorting, or gasping during sleep
- Pauses in breathing
- Waking up at night feeling short of breath
- Daytime sleepiness and fatigue, no matter how much time you spend in bed
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Types of sleep apnea
Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type of sleep apnea. It occurs when the soft tissue in the back of the throat relaxes during sleep and blocks the airway, often causing you to snore loudly. People with obstructive sleep apnea have an airway that is more narrow than normal, usually at the base of the tongue and palate. When lying flat, the palate is above the air passage. When the pharyngeal muscles (muscles of the pharynx or throat ) relax the palate can fall backwards and this can obstruct the airway.
Obstructive sleep apnea may be a risk factor for the development of other medical conditions. High blood pressure (hypertension), heart failure, heart rhythm disturbances, atherosclerotic heart disease, pulmonary hypertension, insulin resistance, and even death are some of the known complications of untreated obstructive sleep apnea. Cognitive impairment (memory problems), depression, anxiety, and gastroesophageal reflux disease are also among possible complications of untreated sleep apnea.
Some groups are more likely to develop obstructive sleep apnea. Men are more likely to have obstructive sleep apnea than women before age 50. After age 50, the risk is the same in men and women. Among obese patients, a majority have obstructive sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea worsens in severity and prevalence with increasing obesity. Among patients with heart disease, a significant portion have obstructive sleep apnea, and among patients with strokes, a majority have obstructive sleep apnea.
Central sleep apnea is a much less common type of sleep apnea that involves the central nervous system, occurring when the brain fails to signal the muscles that control breathing. People with central sleep apnea seldom snore. Like obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea is more common in males and people over the age of 65. However, unlike obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea is often associated with serious illness, such as heart disease, stroke, neurological disease, or spinal or brainstem injury. The first step in treating central sleep apnea is to treat the existing medical conditions that are causing it.
Complex sleep apnea is a combination of obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea.
Bedtime tips for preventing sleep apnea
Sleep on your side. Avoid sleeping on your back which makes it more likely for your tongue and soft tissues to obstruct your airway. Some people only experience sleep apnea when sleeping on their back.
The tennis ball trick. To keep yourself from rolling onto your back while you sleep, sew a tennis ball into a pocket on the back of your pajama top. Or wedge a pillow stuffed with tennis balls behind your back.
Prop your head up. Elevate the head of your bed by four to six inches, or elevate your body from the waist up by using a foam wedge or special cervical pillow.
Open your nasal passages at night by using a nasal dilator, saline spray, breathing strips, or a nasal irrigation system (neti pot).
Tighten the muscles that keep the mouth closed. Try chewing gum or holding a pen between your teeth for about 10 minutes before bedtime, or until your jaw starts to ache.