Many people don’t know they have sleep apnea, a condition where you stop breathing for short periods while sleeping, until a bedmate comments on the loud snoring and/or lack of breath. Apnea, though, is a common condition, affecting some 26% of adults between 30-70. While there may be no immediate danger beyond disturbed sleep, long-term it can have serious consequences on your health.
At Oasis Ear, Nose, and Throat, otolaryngologists Dr. James Osborne and Dr. Bryan Smedley routinely deal with sleep apnea and its complications at their office in Surprise, Arizona. They not only offer their patients treatments to effectively improve nighttime breathing and quality of rest, but they also try to educate them about the condition. Here, they describe ways you could be making your sleep apnea worse and what you should do to improve the situation.
How do you know you have sleep apnea?
There are three different types of sleep apnea, but by far the most common is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). The muscles in the back of your throat support many tissues: the soft palate (roof of your mouth), the uvula (hanging triangular tissue), the side walls of the throat, the tonsils, and the tongue.
When the muscles relax during sleep, they collapse into your airway, preventing you from drawing a breath. Your blood oxygen drops, signaling your brain that there’s a problem. The brain then sends out a signal to wake you up and clear the airway; however, since this is just a brief disturbance, chances are you won’t remember it when you wake up for real.
Instead, you respond to the brain’s signal with a snort, choke, or gasp, then immediately fall back asleep until your airway closes again, and the whole cycle repeats itself. Some people experience this cycle five to 30 times or more each hour, all night long, impairing their ability to reach the deep, restful sleep phases. They wake up feeling tired and parched.
If left untreated, studies show chronic OSA can lead to a number of other severe, chronic conditions, including high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and depression.
Risks for and symptoms of OSA
Risks for OSA include:
- Being overweight or obese: fat around the upper airway can obstruct breathing
- Large neck circumference: thicker necks contain narrower airways
- Gender: men get OSA 2-3 times more than women
- Being older: chances of developing increase as you age
- Having a family history
- Using alcohol, sedatives, or tranquilizers: all relax throat muscles
- Smoking: leads to increased inflammation and fluid retention in the upper airway
- Nasal congestion: from an anatomical problem or allergies
- Medical conditions: high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, previous stroke, type 2 diabetes, and hormonal disorders all increase risk
OSA symptoms include:
- Loud snoring, grunting, and gasping for breath (reported by bedmate)
- Episodes of no breathing (reported by bedmate)
- Difficulty staying asleep
- Excessive daytime sleepiness
- Dry mouth on waking up
- Headache on waking up
- Memory and focus problems
If you experience any of these symptoms, or if your bedmate comments on your breathing difficulties, seek medical attention. We have treatments available that can help prevent complications from lack of breathing.
Ways you can make your sleep apnea better
If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms of sleep apnea, and/or if you have a number of the major risk factors for the condition, the worst thing you can do is not try to reduce your risk and minimize your symptoms.
You can’t change your age or gender or family history, but many of the risk factors are under your control. If you’re overweight, this is the time to shed the pounds. If you smoke, quit! If you can’t quit on your own, there are programs available that can help you break the habit. If you drink alcohol or use tranquilizers, do so in moderation so your throat muscles will remain well toned.
And the best thing you can do is seek treatment for your underlying medical conditions. If you’re able to manage the symptoms — with a healthy diet, exercise, or keeping your blood sugar levels in the normal range — you’re less likely to experience OSA in the first place, and if you do experience it, you’re more likely to benefit from treatment.
Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP)
This is one of the most common treatments for OSA. The device fits over your nose and mouth as you sleep, emitting a steady stream of air pressure that holds your airway open so you can breathe. If you find the mask uncomfortable, alternative devices that provide bilevel positive airway pressure (BPAP) (increased pressure on inhale and decreased pressure on exhale) are available.
Not everyone can deal with the CPAP and BPAP masks; that’s where Inspire comes in. In 2014, the FDA approved this implantable upper airway stimulation device. Placed just under the skin of the neck and chest, it functions similar to a pacemaker, applying gentle stimulation to the airway muscles while you’re asleep. This allows you to breathe normally — without a mask or hose. You simply click the button on the stimulator before you go to bed, and turn it off when you get up in the morning. Easy, peasy, and very effective. In fact, 94% of patients with the implant say they would recommend it to others.
If you’re experiencing any of the signs of sleep apnea, it’s time to come into Oasis Ear, Nose, and Throat for an evaluation and treatment. Give our office a call at 623-234-4640 to schedule a consultation with one of our otolaryngologists, or book online with us today.