How To Tell If You Have Sleep Apnea

Do you regularly wake up feeling tired and or experiencing a headache? If you share a bed, does your partner grumble about the noises you make during the night, such as gasping for air or snoring? If this is the case, you may have sleep apnea, a serious condition that’s becoming increasingly prevalent and potentially serious.

Sleep apnea is a sleep condition in which the airway is blocked during sleep by the soft tissue of the throat and mouth. Your breathing will be interrupted many times during the night, disrupting your sleep with micro-interruptions that you may not even notice in the morning. Your breathing may pause occasionally, or you may experience shallow breathing (or both).

Sleep apnea can cause significant long-term health concerns and may call for using an assistive breathing device as you sleep because your airway becomes blocked by the tongue. Keep reading to find out if you might have sleep apnea.

What is sleep apnea?

Firstly, there are two types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea.

Obstructive sleep apnea is when air cannot flow in or out of the nasal passages and mouth despite your breathing efforts.

Central sleep apnea occurs when the brain fails to deliver the signal to your muscles that enable breathing.

How do I know if I have sleep apnea?

Since some of the symptoms of obstructive and central sleep apnea overlap, it can be hard to tell which kind you have. It’s important to share your concerns with a qualified doctor, but there are a variety of signs that indicate the possibility of sleep apnea.

While you may be unaware that you have sleep apnea since you are asleep or nearly sleeping when it occurs, someone else may observe that when you are asleep¹.

If you or someone who sleeps near you observe these behaviors when you sleep¹, seek the expertise of a sleep specialist:

  • Stopping breathing Gasping for air 

  • Snoring loudly

You may also experience:

  • Waking up choking or gasping for air

  • Having a sore/ dry throat upon waking. (as a result of breathing through your mouth instead of nose) 

  • Morning headaches due to lack of oxygen²

  • Dry mouth from gasping for breath

  • Insomnia, restless sleep, or frequent waking 

  • Feeling unrested or lacking energy after a full night’s sleep due to interrupted sleep 

  • Forgetfulness

  • Disinterest in sex 

  • Dizziness when waking (due to low oxygen)

These symptoms are not necessarily a sure sign of having sleep apnea. However, it’s crucial to bring these possible signs of sleep apnea to your doctor’s attention so that you can get a proper evaluation and treatment.

Learn more about the symptoms of sleep apnea here.

How common is sleep apnea?

According to research by Case Western Reserve University³, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is estimated to affect 2-9% of adults in the United States. They found that men are four times more likely than women to suffer from sleep apnea, and it’s up to seven times more common amongst people with a BMI (body mass index) greater than 30 kg/m2. Though sleep apnea can affect any age group, it becomes more prevalent with age⁴.

Central sleep apnea affects approximately 0.9% of people⁵ over forty. When people talk about sleep apnea, they are usually referring to obstructive sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea risk factors

Sleep apnea is a disorder that can affect anybody. However, certain factors can increase your risk:

Obesity

Being overweight increases your chances of having sleep apnea. Excess weight can put pressure on the windpipe when you sleep, blocking airflow.

Use of sedatives, tranquilizers, or alcohol

Sedatives and alcohol can relax your throat, making it easier for the airway to become blocked. Prescription and nonprescription drugs can also impact how your brain regulates sleep and send signals to the muscles involved in breathing.

A family history of sleep apnea

If one or more close relatives have OSA, there is a greater likelihood that you will experience it as well. Researchers have identified genetics as a risk factor, although maintaining a healthy lifestyle can reduce the chance of sleep apnea.

Hormonal conditions

Hormone regulation disorders such as hypothyroidism⁶ may enhance the risk of sleep apnea by inflaming airway tissues and increasing the risk of obesity.

Nasal congestion

If your ability to breathe through your nose is hindered by congestion, you are more likely to suffer from sleep apnea.

How is sleep apnea diagnosed?

You'll need to consult a doctor, ideally a sleep medicine expert, to determine whether you have sleep apnea. Before diagnosing you with sleep apnea, your doctor will rule out any other medical problems or causes for your signs and symptoms.

Sleep apnea is evaluated in several ways, including:

Medical history

Your doctor will evaluate potential sleep apnea symptoms with your exact medical history in mind. They'll go through your family history looking for sleep apnea or other sleep disorders, and determine whether you have other risk factors or health consequences resulting from undiagnosed sleep apnea.

Physical examination

Waist and neck circumference, along with facial structure are the most common physical factors that contribute to sleep apnea. You may also have high blood pressure. Your doctor will closely examine your jaw and mouth, on the lookout for things like enlarged tonsils or anatomically unusual features in your upper airway.

Sleep studies

Polysomnography (PSG) is a sleep analysis test and the gold standard for diagnosing sleep apnea. Conducted in a lab while you’re sleeping, a PSG measures your brain waves, blood oxygen levels, heart rate, respiration, eye movement, and leg movement. In some cases, a sleep expert can assist with in-home monitoring.

When to see a doctor

If you suspect that you suffer from sleep apnea, don’t hesitate to get evaluated by a doctor. Sleep apnea is treatable and you can begin therapy almost immediately once diagnosed.

There are a variety of assistive devices that reposition the jaw or use continuous positive air pressure to help. A CPAP machine is often part of treatment. If your snoring or sleep does not improve with therapy, return to your doctor for further evaluation.

The lowdown

You may be unaware that you have sleep apnea, but someone who lives with you will notice the possible symptoms.

If you're always tired and falling asleep throughout the day, or if relatives and friends have informed you that you snore loudly and make gasping noises when sleeping, you may have sleep apnea.

If you do have sleep apnea, your condition deserves expert medical evaluation. If left untreated, sleep apnea impacts quality of life and can create significant health problems for you in the future, such as memory problems, depression, and high blood pressure.⁷

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