Sleep in its most straight forward sense is ‘a condition of body and mind in which the nervous system is inactive, the eyes closed, the postural muscles relaxed, and consciousness practically suspended.’ Whereas Apnea literally means the cessation of breathing’. And therefore the umbrella term of sleep apnea refers to people who unintentionally stop breathing in their sleep. It’s a serious condition but the good thing is that it can be treated.

What is Obstructive Sleep Apnea and what happens to those who have it?

The word obstructive is often used to proceed the term ‘sleep apnea’. This is because it distinguishes the common form of the condition from other rarer forms of sleep apnea which are often as a result of the brain not sending signals to the muscles that aid breathing whilst sleeping.

Sleep Apnea is caused by the airway becoming repeatedly blocked, essentially limiting the amount of oxygen that is getting to the lungs. When this happens, as people try to breathe, they may snore very loudly or even begin to make choking noises. As the brain and body becomes more and more oxygen deprived, there will be a natural trigger of falling back into a lighter sleep or even waking up all together in order to open the airways again.

Many of those that suffer with sleep apnea may only experience a few episodes per night but for the more serious cases, this can happen every couple of minutes which could result in waking up hundreds of times per night. During one of these episodes, the limited supply of oxygen eventually wakes people up so that they are able to breathe again. After falling back into a deeper sleep, further bouts of apnea can occur.

How do I know if I have sleep apnea?

Often referred to as ‘Obstructive Sleep Apnea’ or OSA, it is a condition that affects around 4% of middle aged men and 2% of middle aged women. It is also most common between the ages of 30 to 60 years old but it can affect people of all ages, including children.

Unfortunately, many of those that suffer with the condition are actually unaware that they have it and therefore the figures above are thought to be somewhat distorted. This is because often those that have sleep apnea will have no memory of the interrupted sleep and it usually takes either a partner, friend or family member to notice the symptoms as you fall asleep.

If you do think that you have sleep apnea then it is important to consult your GP. They will then act accordingly and on some occasions refer you to an overnight clinic where they will monitor your sleeping habits.

Symptoms:

These repeated sleep interruptions can make those that suffer with the condition extremely fatigued and can result in falling asleep in unexpected places. The main things to look out for if someone is suspected of having sleep apnea are: loud snoring, noisy and delayed breathing and continuous short periods where breathing is interrupted by snorting or gasping. However, other symptoms also include:

  • Poor memory and concentration
  • Not feeling refreshed after waking up
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Depression and overall negative thoughts
  • Feeling fatigued and lethargic throughout the day
  • Headaches after waking up

Although not directly related, Obstructive Sleep Apnea also increases the risk of triggering potentially more serious conditions such as high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes and fatal accidents caused by tiredness such as road traffic collisions.

Treatment

Lifestyle:

It’s important to know that sleep apnea is a long term condition and many sufferers of the condition will require lifelong treatment. And the first thing that many will be advised to do is to make healthy lifestyle changes such as losing weight if needed, stopping smoking or avoiding sedative medications and sleeping pills.

All of the above lifestyle changes, as well as reducing alcohol intake, particularly before bed are great for improving the symptoms of sleep apnea. This, as well as sleeping on the side of the body instead of the back has also been said to improve the symptoms of the condition.

Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP):

If someone has moderate to severe sleep apnea then they could benefit from a machine that supplies air pressure through a mask which is placed over your nose whilst you sleep. This a mask that covers the majority of the face that offers a continuous supply of air pressure which works so that the throat is prevented from closing.

CPAP is often thought to be the most effective way of trying to combat sleep apnea and that’s why it is essential to try and persevere with the mask in the initial few weeks. It can often be uncomfortable and even unnatural to have a mask on your face whilst sleeping. But for those who continue to wear the mask, soon get accustomed to their new machine and their symptoms improve as a result.

In addition, as well as reducing the amount of snoring, sometimes this goes completely, the sufferer will also feel less tired. The knock on effects are also great as it reduces the risk of diseases linked to the condition such as high blood pressure and heart disease.

There are a few side effects of using the CPAP breathing apparatus but the pros of using the device by far outweigh the cons. Possible side effects include: headaches and ear pain, nasal congestion and nose irritation, difficulty breathing through your nose, mask discomfort and possible flatulence.

If your device is causing you discomfort then speak to your GP and they will be able to alter the position in order to make it more comfortable. Also, if you continue to snore then you should again visit your GP.

Surgery:

Like with most ailments and conditions, surgery is considered as a last resort for sleep apnea. This is because the evidence shows that it is not as effective as CPAP in controlling the symptoms and with surgery also carries the risk of more serious complications. Having said this, surgery can work for some people when all other options have failed. Some of the surgery that helps to alleviate the condition are:

Jaw Repositioning: In terms of surgery, this is perhaps the closest to a quick fix for sleep apnea that you will get. The procedure involves moving the jaw forward from the remainder of the bones in your face. This then leaves a greater distance behind the tongue and soft palate, meaning that obstruction is far less likely.

Tracheostomy: If all other treatments fail then you may be required to have this form of surgery. In the event of this surgery, the sleep apnea will be severe and almost life threatening. The operation involves making an opening in the neck and inserting a plastic tube through which you breathe. The opening will be covered during the day but at night it is important to uncover it to allow an air supply to the lungs.

Weight loss: Weight loss surgery is becoming increasingly more common in both Europe and America, perhaps because the average body mass index is increasing at an alarming rate. However, obesity will make sleep apnea significantly worse. This is why some resort to having weight loss surgery as a way of improving sleep apnea.

It is clear to see that there are many people who are not even aware that they have sleep apnea and that’s why it is important to raise the issue if you notice someone who has shortness of breath whilst sleeping. Also, if you have any other of the above symptoms it is also important to visit a GP. So in the future be sure to not pass off a bit of loud snoring as a bit of loud snoring and find out the ways to improve the quality of your sleep.