What You Need To Know About Sleep Apnea

What is sleep apnea?

Defined as a sleeping condition and serious sleep disorder, sleep apnea occurs when breathing repeatedly stops and starts during slumber. The American Society of Anesthesiologists reports that over 18 million people are living with obstructive sleep apnea and many don't realize they have the condition.

Sleep apnea doesn't discriminate when it comes to age, gender, or race and can be experienced by a variety of people. The causes behind the condition vary, as does the type of sleep apnea you may be dealing with.

There are three types of sleep apnea that are commonly recognized and diagnosed, all of which can leave you feeling irritable and never fully rested. If you believe you or a loved one may be struggling with a sleep disorder, the following types of sleep apnea may be the culprit.

  • Obstructive sleep apnea

  • Central sleep apnea

  • Complex sleep apnea syndrome

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)

OSA is the most common form of sleep apnea recognized in individuals and can be found in both children and adults.

Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles located in the back of the throat temporarily relax. Upon relaxing, the airway begins to narrow and can prevent a person from getting enough air. This can lead to lower blood oxygen levels and cause you to snort, gasp, or choke which can wake you or cause you to stir in your sleep.

People who suffer from OSA may experience some disturbance to their sleep anywhere from five to 30 times a night.

Central sleep apnea (CSA)

Quite different from OSA, central sleep apnea is categorized as the lack of drive to breathe when sleeping. CSA may cause you to wake up gasping for air or feel like you've just run a marathon, leaving you with a rapid heartbeat and shortness of breath.

Due to the lack of signals from your brain telling your body to breathe, CSA can lead to aches and pains from the repetitive disturbances during your sleep cycle. It can also increase your risk of cardiovascular issues.

Complex sleep apnea syndrome (CompSAS)

Sometimes referred to as CompSAS, complex sleep apnea syndrome is considered a sub-form of central sleep apnea. CompSAS occurs when central sleep apnea persists or develops following treatment for OSA. This type of sleep disorder is considered difficult to treat.

Other related conditions

Symptoms

Sleep apnea isn't always recognized by the stereotype of snoring, and symptoms can often overlap. When this happens, it may take a little more time to diagnose which form of sleep apnea you have.

If you live alone, you may not even notice that you're experiencing complications while asleep and you may be concerned that you're just not feeling your best.

If you're not sure what to look for, these common symptoms can be a hint that you might be dealing with a sleep disorder.

  • Repeatedly waking up with a dry mouth. 

  • Morning headaches.

  • Difficulty staying asleep.

  • Difficulty staying awake or paying attention during the day - extreme fatigue.

  • Irritability or quick changes in mood.

  • Loud snoring.

  • Gasping for air while asleep or short moments where you stop breathing during sleep - most often recognized when reported by somebody else. 

Understand the warning signs of sleep apnea.

What are the complications of having sleep apnea?

Disruptive sleep may not be the only challenge you face when battling sleep apnea. Many times, while you're technically sleeping through the night, you'll wake feeling fatigued or as if you didn't get the most restful sleep. The reality is that you truly didn't have the peaceful rest your body needs in order to adequately function each day.

Prolonged sleep apnea that is left untreated can also lead to other complications. You may notice that your blood pressure is rising or you get sick easily. In some situations, complications from having sleep apnea can lead to severe health risks, including but not limited to:

  • High blood pressure

  • Heart problems

  • Liver issues

  • Decreased metabolism and drastic weight fluctuations

Sleep apnea can even put you at a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes. People with sleep apnea have an increased chance of developing insulin resistance, which can lead to many future issues.

Causes

There are a variety of reasons why sleep apnea occurs, which can make it difficult to pinpoint the reason you are suffering.

When you suspect that you may have sleep apnea, it is useful to reach out to your physician to find out which tests are appropriate for a diagnosis.

Sometimes you may be referred to a lung specialist (pulmonologist) and other times you might be referred to an otolaryngologist to examine your ears, nose, and throat. In some situations, you may even need to see a neurologist or dentist to determine the cause of your restlessness.

Risk factors

Common risk factors that may increase chances of developing sleep apnea include:

  • Obesity - Your upper airway may be blocked if fat deposits begin to cause obstruction. 

  • Inflamed tonsils or adenoids - This can narrow your airway. 

  • Smoking - You may experience fluid retention or inflammation from smoking.

  • Nasal congestion - It could be allergies or it could be an anatomical problem that's making it difficult for your lungs to receive the air they need during the night. 

  • Congestive heart failure

  • High blood pressure

  • Parkinson's disease

Sleep apnea affects an estimated 26% of adults between the ages of 30 and 70¹, increasing in likelihood as a person ages. While men are more likely to develop the sleep disorder, women follow closely behind and some cases show that even infants can occasionally develop sleep apnea.

In adults, sleep apnea is commonly caused by obesity and other medical conditions, while in children it's typically the result of swollen or enlarged tonsils and adenoids.

Diagnosis

When testing for sleep apnea, you'll likely need to undergo a sleep study in order to document and track disruptions throughout your night's rest. Some doctors will send you to a specialized lab to perform the study, and others may send you home with special equipment to wear during the night over multiple nights.

What to expect during a sleep study

During a sleep study, various non-invasive tests will be performed to collect data throughout the night. Monitors will measure your brain waves through an EEG, document eye and chin movements, and will also measure your heart rate and rhythm to decipher any patterns or help address any concerns.

In some situations, if it looks like you have obstructive sleep apnea, your doctor may wake you during the study to fit you with a positive airway pressure device (PAP). This will help determine if PAP therapy helps you experience more restful slumber or if it proves too intrusive and another method of treatment may be required.

Continue reading about what can cause sleep apnea.

Treatments

The type of treatment required varies according to the type of sleep apnea you have. There's no one size fits all solution, which means you may try a few different types of treatment or natural remedies before finding the one that works the best for you.

Common types of treatment for sleep apnea include but are not limited to:

  • Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP)

  • Bilevel positive airway pressure (BPAP)

  • Adaptive servo-ventilation

  • Oral appliances

  • Resolving associated medical problems 

  • Supplemental oxygen

  • Surgery

CPAP

Moderate to severe sleep apnea is commonly treated with a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine.

With CPAP devices, you wear a mask while you sleep and a machine connects to the mask's tubing to deliver larger quantities of air pressure to your lungs than what you're capable of receiving on your own while asleep.

BPAP

Similar to CPAP, bi-level positive air pressure (BPAP) machines provide more pressure when you inhale and less when you exhale. In some situations, BPAP may cause less stress and feel more comfortable.

Adaptive servo-ventilation (ASV)

Designed as a non-invasive form of treatment, ASV relies on attentive data to learn your sleeping habits and patterns. It monitors your breathing in order to detect abnormalities and automatically adjusts the amount of pressure it provides in order to help you maintain breathing at a normal rate. Once your body regulates its breathing, the machine reduces the amount of pressure and re-adjusts itself.

Oral appliances

When using oral appliances to treat sleep apnea, every design needs to be custom-made for each user. Oral appliances are most commonly crafted by dentists or oral surgeons to help bring your jaw forward and open your airway more.

It can take some trial and error to find and create the best fit with this type of treatment, and you'll likely need to regularly follow up with your dentist to make adjustments as needed.

Ongoing medical issues

Some forms of sleep apnea may be caused by neurological or neuromuscular disorders, which require different forms of treatment. If you're suffering from heart problems or other medical issues, your doctor may help you find relief from a sleep disorder by treating the ongoing medical problems.

Various forms of surgery

Undergoing surgery to combat sleep apnea is typically only an option after you've tried several other treatments without success. Generally, doctors will only recommend surgery in the first instance for a small pool of people with specific issues with their jaw structure. Otherwise, when and if surgery is recommended, the type of procedure will depend on the cause of sleep apnea.

Surgical treatments for sleep apnea patients include tissue removal, tissue shrinkage through an ablation, jaw repositioning, implants, nerve stimulation, and sometimes a tracheostomy in order to create a new passageway for air.

Lifestyle changes

If you believe that you may be suffering from a sleep disorder, trying organic at-home remedies may be a first step in helping you get some relief and a good night's rest. Making adjustments to your daily routine and lifestyle may assist in temporarily relieving distress from sleep apnea.

Natural remedies to consider as part of your plan of action when self-treating include:

Exercise, such as yoga, can increase your energy level, strengthen your heart, and strengthen your lungs. 

Maintaining your weight or losing weight can prevent the need for long-term CPAP therapy or reduce the need for upper airway surgery. Obesity of the upper body can increase airway obstruction and narrow nasal passageways, causing difficulty breathing while sleeping. 

Humidifiers can add moisture to the air and help clear up congestion or irritation caused by dry air, encouraging your airways to open and make way for easier breathing. 

Change your sleeping position to assist in opening your airways. One study showed that sleeping in a lateral position, on your side, decreased the amount of respiratory events¹ for both OSA and CSA.

Find more natural remedies and techniques for sleep apnea to try at home.

Prevention

If you're wondering if sleep apnea can be prevented, the answer is that it depends on the type of sleep apnea you have along with its causes. In many cases, you cannot directly prevent it. However, you can make some lifestyle changes to attempt to prevent sleep apnea from occurring or decrease its effects.

Exercise

When trying to reduce the results of sleep apnea and potentially avoid developing it, exercise can act as one of the biggest advantages. By exercising frequently, you can maintain your weight and potentially avoid sleep apnea caused by obesity or even potential medical problems such as issues with the heart or lungs.

Diet

You can also keep to a lighter, healthier diet to give your body some extra strength through nutrition when trying to avoid the disorder.

Avoid certain medications

One final method of precaution is to avoid taking any kind of sedative or sleeping pill that may relax the muscles in your throat before bed.

Doctors & specialists

If you're concerned that you may be dealing with undiagnosed sleep apnea, talking to your primary physician is the first step in determining the best route for treatment and potential diagnosis.

You can discuss your symptoms, whether you feel sleepy during the day, wake up feeling sluggish, or if your partner has told you that there are regular pauses in your breathing throughout the night.

Depending on your symptoms, your primary physician may refer you to a sleep doctor, otherwise known as a somnologist, or another type of doctor.

Doctors that treat sleep disorders include:

Otolaryngologists

These doctors focus on diseases surrounding your face and the structures inside of your head. They're considered ear, nose, and throat specialists. 

Neurologists

You may be referred to this type of doctor if your symptoms appear to mimic signs of central sleep apnea. This commonly occurs in older people. 

Dentists

Some cases of sleep apnea can be caused by oral infections or the configuration of the jaw, and dentists can assist in designing oral appliances to combat those issues.

After unsuccessful treatment and in special cases, the help of a surgeon may be suggested to help treat sleep apnea. The type of surgery you have will depend on the cause of the disorder along with the type of sleep apnea.

FAQs

Can sleep apnea be cured?

The only certain way to cure sleep apnea is by pinpointing the cause of the condition and performing surgery in order to combat it. However, surgery does not work in every situation and can have adverse side effects.

When is snoring sleep apnea?

Snoring doesn't always equate to sleep apnea, but frequent loud snoring can be an indicator of the condition. Snoring followed by pauses in breathing for more than ten seconds or gasping for air is most commonly a sign of sleep apnea.

Are sleep apnea tests accurate?

The accuracy of a sleep apnea test depends on the type of device used, how long it's used, and your risk level for sleep apnea. At-home devices typically only measure breathing and not actual sleep, frequently making the results appear inconclusive or falsely negative. Sleep studies performed at a specialized facility are more accurate and thoroughly monitor your breathing, heart rate, actual sleep, and more.

What does sleep apnea do to your body?

Not only does sleep apnea increase the likelihood of developing high blood pressure, but it can increase the stress on your heart. Sleep apnea is a serious medical condition and can leave you feeling fatigued, mentally overwhelmed, and can even directly impact your digestive system. It often leads to drastic changes in weight and could cause memory problems if left untreated.

Is sleep apnea dangerous?

Yes. Aside from disrupting your sleep, sleep apnea can increase the risk of developing diseases, heighten the chances of getting sick throughout the year, and cause your body physical distress. As a result, this can cause heart trouble, and an increased risk of liver disease, in addition to other diseases.

Are sleep apnea machines loud?

The majority of sleep apnea machines (CPAP and BPAP) are fairly quiet. They're designed to be as soft as a whisper to help prevent waking you. Some people say they sound similar to a running fan.

Clinical trials for sleep apnea

Actively recruiting
Dual-sided Hypoglossal neRvE stimulAtion for the treatMent of Obstructive Sleep Apnea
AustraliaUnited States
Actively recruiting
remedē System Therapy Study
AZ, CA, CO, IL and 8 more locations (US)
Actively recruiting
Solriamfetol's Effect on Cognitive Health in Apnea Participants During a Randomized Placebo-controlled Study
CA, FL, GA, MD and 7 more locations (US)