Sleep apnea: symptoms, causes and treatment

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We all know the consequences of a lack of sleep: mood swings, grunts, food cravings, difficulty concentrating and sluggishness. And when you don’t know Why you can’t get enough sleep, the symptoms become even more frustrating. Culprits for sleepless nights range from blue light to parasites, but you may be dealing with something more serious: sleep apnea.

Approximately 22 million Americans have sleep apnea, a sleep disorder that causes you to momentarily stop breathing while you sleep. With sleep apnea, your airways become blocked as your body relaxes during sleep, limiting your lungs to low airflow.

Characterized by loud snoring and often choking noises, sleep apnea causes oxygen deprivation in your brain and body, which often results in frequent awakenings overnight. Depending on the case, this can happen a few times a night or hundreds of times every night.

This guide reviews the different types of sleep apnea, its causes, risk factors and symptoms to help you understand sleep apnea. You will also learn how to seek a diagnosis and treatment options if you suspect you have sleep apnea.

Different types of sleep apnea

There are three types of sleep apnea, and how they manifest in your body is different. But the end result is the same: all three starve your body of oxygen.

  • Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common form of sleep apnea that occurs when your throat muscles relax, preventing your lungs from getting oxygen.
  • Central sleep apnea is less common and occurs when your brain fails to correctly signal the muscles in your body that control breathing.
  • Complex sleep apnea syndrome, also known as treatment-onset central sleep apnea, is the least common of the three. This happens when a person has signs of both obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea symptoms

The most common symptom of sleep apnea is snoring, but snoring itself is not always indicative of sleep apnea. Snoring followed by silent pauses, gasps, or choking noises is likely a sign of sleep apnea.

Because sleep apnea wakes you frequently throughout the night (even if you don’t notice it), you may suffer from sleep deprivation symptoms, such as daytime fatigue, difficulty concentrating, involuntary naps and irritability or mood swings.

Other symptoms include:

  • Feeling tired, even though you thought you had a full night’s sleep
  • Insomnia or difficulty falling asleep
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Memory loss
  • Decreased libido
  • Nocturia (waking up at night to go to the bathroom)

Complications of sleep apnea

When you have sleep apnea, your body is constantly deprived of oxygen throughout the night. This lack of oxygen can have long-term negative effects on your health.

Sleep apnea has been associated to:

  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Diabetes
  • Depression
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • liver problems

Learn more: How to sleep better

Causes and risk factors of sleep apnea

An “apnea” is a temporary pause in breathing. In most cases, it is caused by sagging of the tissues at the back of the throat (obstructive sleep apnea).

When you fall asleep, the muscles in your upper airways relax. This narrows your airways, which prevents oxygen from reaching your lungs. If you sleep on your back, gravity can exacerbate this shrinkage, as your tongue curls back toward your throat.

Central sleep apnea is usually linked to other medical conditions, such as heart disorders and brain damage.

When it comes to risk factors, many factors can influence your likelihood of developing sleep apnea, the most common and important being being overweight.

Common risk factors for sleep apnea include:

  • Overweight: If you have a body mass index of 25 or more, your risk of sleep apnea increases.
  • Large choker: Your risk of sleep apnea is higher if your neck measures 17 inches or more for men, or 16 inches or more for women. This is because a larger neck has more tissue that is likely to collapse during sleep.
  • Age: Sleep apnea can affect people of any age, but it becomes more common as people reach adulthood and middle age.
  • Gender: More men suffer from sleep apnea than women. For women, the risk of sleep apnea increases as they approach and go through menopause.
  • High blood pressure: Hypertension and sleep apnea frequently coexist.
  • Family history: If a family member has sleep apnea, your risk is higher because sleep apnea can be inherited.
  • Alcohol consumption : Drinking alcohol before bed can further relax the throat muscles.
  • Smoking: Smoking can increase inflammation in your airways.

To be diagnosed with sleep apnea, you might undergo a polysomnography test.

Amelie Benoist/BSIP/Getty Images

How is sleep apnea diagnosed?

In most cases, doctors diagnose sleep apnea based on a careful physical exam, sleep assessment, and sleep history. You may not be able to provide a sleep history on your own, but you can enlist the help of someone who shares your bed or room.

A sleep assessment usually involves overnight monitoring at a sleep center, where machines measure your breathing and other bodily functions, such as your pulse, while you sleep. Sometimes home sleep tests are an option. Tests that detect sleep apnea include:

  • Nocturnal polysomnography: During this test, the equipment measures your heart, lung and brain activity, as well as your breathing and movement patterns and blood oxygen levels while you sleep.
  • Several sleep latency tests: An MSLT tests for excessive daytime sleepiness by measuring how quickly you fall asleep in a quiet environment during the day. It is often used to diagnose narcolepsy.
  • Maintenance of wakefulness test: An MWT measures your ability to stay awake during the day by finding your sleep latency, or how long it takes you to fall asleep. Daytime sleep latencies of less than eight minutes are considered abnormal.
  • Home sleep tests: Home tests are usually simplified versions of overnight polysomnography that measure your heart rate, airflow, breathing patterns, and blood oxygen levels.

In some cases, doctors refer patients to a sleep specialist or otolaryngologist (also known as an otolaryngologist or ENT) for further evaluation, which may include a flow test of nasal air and an examination to rule out any blockage in the nose or ears. .

Your doctor may also refer you to a cardiologist or neurologist to investigate the causes of central sleep apnea. A neurologist may perform an electroencephalogram, or EEG, to measure brain waves and test for central sleep apnea, while a cardiologist may use an electrocardiogram, or ECG, to rule out or confirm any heart complications.

Man in his thirties with sleep apnea sleeping with CPAP

CPAP masks are one of the most common ways to treat sleep apnea.

Alina Solovyova-Vincent/Getty Images

How to Treat Sleep Apnea

You can treat sleep apnea in several ways, and many people go through a series of trial treatments to find out what works best for their sleep apnea. Sometimes it takes a series of tries to find the best treatment, and most people end up using a combination of common equipment, machines, and therapies to get relief.

Treatment options for sleep apnea include:

Continuous positive airway pressure: Most people who seek treatment for sleep apnea start with CPAP. You choose a CPAP mask, which sends a stream of pressurized air down your throat to open your airways while you sleep. If you use a CPAP, be sure to keep it clean.

Positive airway pressure at two levels: Similar to a CPAP, a BiPAP also provides pressurized airflow. The main difference is that it provides two different flows – one when you inhale and one when you exhale.

Jugular: Usually used in conjunction with a CPAP, chinstraps help you stop breathing through your mouth.

Oral devices: If you don’t have severe sleep apnea, you can try custom mouth appliances that help keep your airways open. Just make sure you get one from a qualified dentist or orthodontist, not a one-off device on the internet.

Usually, your doctor won’t recommend surgery unless all other options have failed to treat and improve your sleep apnea. Most doctors suggest at least a three-month trial of other options before recommending surgery, which may include nasal reconstruction (such as to fix a deviated septum) or removal of a adenoids — the soft tissues at the back of your throat.

The information in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute medical or health advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have about a medical condition or health goals.

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