Sleep apnea is common, but it’s also treatable
photo by: LMH Health
Have you ever woken up during the night gasping for air? Do you find yourself exhausted during the day because you’re not getting quality sleep? Do you snore loudly enough that friends or family have made comments? If so, you might be one of the millions of Americans who suffer from sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that can cause pauses in breathing or abnormal breathing. When you experience sleep apnea, your breathing stops for more than ten seconds or becomes very shallow. The American Lung Association says that 10% to 30% of adults in the United States may suffer from sleep apnea.
What’s my risk?
According to the National Institutes of Health, there are three kinds of sleep apnea: obstructive, central and mixed. Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common, occurring when the upper airway becomes blocked or collapses during sleep. With central sleep apnea, the brain doesn’t send the correct signals to the muscles that control breathing. The least common is mixed, a combination of obstructive and central sleep apnea.
It’s important to know your risk. Men are more likely to suffer from the disorder than women, as are people age 50 and older. People with a family history are also more likely to develop sleep apnea.
“It can be something that runs in families and often has to do with having a crowded throat,” said Dr. Lida Osbern, a pulmonologist with Lawrence Pulmonary Specialists. “Narrowing of the airway creates a higher risk.”
Obesity is also a contributing factor. If you have a body mass index greater than 35 or a neck circumference greater than 16 inches for women or 17 inches for men, you’re also at higher risk of developing sleep apnea.
While signs and symptoms of the disorder vary from person to person, be on the lookout for:
* Excessive daytime sleepiness
* Loud snoring
* Morning headaches
* Difficulty with memory and concentration
* Unusual moodiness or irritability
If you suspect that you or a loved one may have sleep apnea, reach out to your primary care provider for help. They may refer you to a pulmonologist to undergo a sleep study.
“Sleep studies used to require spending a night in a sleep center. Many patients feared that, so it was harder to get them to undergo the study,” Osbern said. “Now most of the time, we use home sleep studies that are very easy and accurate.”
During a home sleep study, you’ll sleep in your own bed at home with specialized but simple equipment for two nights. If the study shows that you have more than five abnormal breaths per hour, it confirms that you have sleep apnea.
Treatment results in a better night’s sleep
Left untreated, sleep apnea can be a life-threatening condition. It can increase your risk of heart attack, stroke, congestive heart failure, dementia, impotence and even death. Fortunately, there are a number of treatments that can improve or eliminate the disorder.
“We may recommend lifestyle changes, including weight loss,” Osbern said. “If you drink alcohol and you snore significantly after drinking but not at other times, don’t drink close to bedtime — none after dinner.”
Other recommendations may include sleeping on your side and avoiding taking sedative medications, including sleeping pills. If you have very mild sleep apnea, using a dental appliance may suffice. For significant sleep apnea, the treatment of choice is a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine.
According to a study published in June 2022, researchers at University Grenoble Alpes in France conducted a study of two groups of 88,007 patients demonstrating the effectiveness of CPAP devices. It suggested that continued use of CPAP therapy was associated with a significantly lower risk of congestive heart failure and death compared to those patients who stopped using the device.
“CPAP is the gold standard when it comes to treating sleep apnea, and one that works for most everyone if they’re open to it,” Osbern said. “A lot of people have friends and relatives who hated their machines, so they’re hesitant. The good news is that machines get smaller and quieter all the time. There are also many styles and sizes of masks, so everyone should be able to find one that will comfortably fit.”
An alternative treatment receiving attention is Inspire, an implantable device approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of obstructive sleep apnea.
“Inspire isn’t used as a first-line treatment for patients with sleep apnea,” Osbern said. “The patient has to have documentation that they’ve tried CPAP for at least three months and failed. They must also have a BMI under 32 and have manual dexterity so they’ll be able to turn the device on at night. Some patients don’t realize that this is a surgical procedure.”
The good news is that sleep apnea is a treatable disease. Talk with your health care provider if you experience symptoms of sleep apnea or other sleep disorders.
“Sleep apnea is one medical problem over which you have complete control,” Osbern said. “There are a lot of issues that are out of our hands. If you have sleep apnea, you get it diagnosed and follow your doctor’s instructions, then you’re in control of that particular medical destiny.”
• Autumn Bishop is the marketing manager and content strategist at LMH Health, which is a major sponsor of the Journal-World’s Health section.