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Don’t Settle for Insufficient Sleep

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Daytime drowsiness may signal a sleep disorder

Posted by Maria Elena Vega-Sanchez, MD

Most people feel tired now and then, especially after a late night. But if daytime sleepiness is a common occurrence, it may be a sign of a serious health concern, such as sleep apnea.

As a sleep disorder specialist, I’m often asked how to recognize when “normal” sleep struggles signal a problem. Often, my answer can be boiled down to just five words: Take excessive daytime sleepiness seriously.

It’s important to understand what excessive daytime sleepiness really means. If you frequently find yourself yawning through your midday meetings, lacking the focus you need to finish a task, or dozing while doing seated activities, you might be experiencing daytime sleepiness. It’s not the same as fatigue, but a person can experience fatigue and sleepiness at the same time.

As many as 1 in 4 Americans lives with excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS). It may affect their health and quality of life. EDS is linked to problems such as:

  • Depression
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Increased risk of accidents, such as car crashes

In many instances, typical daytime sleepiness may be caused by lack of restful sleep. Most adults need about seven hours per night. So if someone is occasionally sleepy after staying up later than usual, the likely explanation may seem obvious. But for many of my patients, chronic sleepiness is a common symptom of a sleep disorder.

When patients come to the Temple Sleep Disorders Center for a sleep study or other tests, they’re on their way to the right diagnosis. But they’ve often waited a long time before seeking expert advice. And when sleepiness is caused by sleep apnea or another sleep disorder, that delay can harm their health.

Daytime sleepiness can signal sleep apnea

Sleep apnea, a disorder that causes interrupted breathing during sleep, is one of the most common causes of EDS in my patients.

Obstructive sleep apnea, the most common form of the disorder, occurs when a person’s airway becomes blocked by their tongue or other tissues in the back of the throat while they sleep. This blockage limits or stops airflow and makes it harder to breathe.

Sometimes people with sleep apnea wake up multiple times during the night when they stop breathing and are gasping for breath. These awakenings cause sleep fragmentation and poor sleep quality which in turn leads to daytime sleepiness despite getting sufficient amount of sleep at night.

Snoring is another common symptom. Not everyone who snores has sleep apnea, however, if you experience daytime sleepiness and you’ve been told you snore or gasp during sleep, I recommend seeking a sleep study to find out if you have the condition.

It's possible to have sleep apnea and not even know it. My patients’ partners or roommates are often the first to notice the signs, such as:

  • Daytime sleepiness or fatigue
  • Choking or gasping during sleep
  • Irritability
  • Loud snoring
  • Memory or concentration problems
  • Morning headaches
  • Pauses in breathing
  • Problems with sexual desire or function
  • Waking frequently in the night

Anyone can have sleep apnea, but it is most common in middle aged and older adults. It is common among people with excess body weight, which is a major risk factor. The risk is also higher for men, people with a family history of the disorder, people who use alcohol or other sedatives, and people with airway problems, such as a deviated septum.

Sleep apnea is a serious health concern and it is associated with high blood pressure, heart attack, heart failure, arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm), and stroke.

The good news is that effective treatments are available, including continuous positive airway pressure, oral appliances, and, in some cases, surgery. At Temple, a new treatment, upper airway stimulation, is now available for certain sleep apnea patients. Lifestyle changes and sleep techniques, such as changing your sleeping position, can also help.

Many of my patients with sleep apnea feel much better once their condition is effectively treated.

Get expert help for EDS

My patients often tell me the many ways the right diagnosis changed their lives, from increased focus at work to improved mood at home — and of, course, a reduced risk of sleep-related health conditions.

That’s why it’s helpful to see a medical professional with expertise in diagnosing and treating sleep conditions whether that’s sleep apnea or another sleep disorder such as insomnia or narcolepsy.

Insomnia is a sleep disorder which involves trouble falling or staying asleep. People who suffer from insomnia are unable to get enough sleep which in turn may cause daytime fatigue.

In narcolepsy, the brain is unable to properly regulate wakefulness. People with the condition experience EDS and may fall asleep suddenly during the day. Other symptoms associated with narcolepsy include cataplexy (a sudden loss of muscle tone), sleep paralysis, or automatic behaviors.

Some of my patients experience more than one sleep disorder at a time. For example, insomnia is sometimes a symptom of sleep apnea. In addition, about 25% of people with narcolepsy also have an additional sleep disorder, most commonly sleep apnea.

Temple sleep specialists have the equipment and experience to diagnose rare conditions or combinations of conditions. And our multidisciplinary team works closely with other experts to offer comprehensive care.

Never settle for poor sleep

If you’re living with a sleep disorder, the right diagnosis and treatment can change your life. I encourage everyone with excessive daytime sleepiness to schedule an appointment with a pulmonologist who is trained in sleep medicine.

You can see a Temple sleep specialist at three convenient locations: Our Main Campus, Jeanes Campus, and Temple Health Oaks. Request an appointment online or call 800-TEMPLE-MED (800-836-7536).

Helpful Resources

Looking for more information?

Maria Elena Vega-Sanchez, MD

Dr. Vega-Sanchez is a pulmonologist at the Temple Lung Center, with expertise in sleep medicine, obstructive sleep apnea, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and interstitial lung disease. She is Associate Professor of Thoracic Medicine and Surgery at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, and Interim Program Director of its Pulmonary and Critical Care Fellowship. Dr. Vega-Sanchez speaks Spanish, and is a member of the American Thoracic Society and American College of Chest Physicians.

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