If it seems like you’re always tired during the day or you often wake up with a headache — even though you’re getting enough sleep — you could have a sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea is very common, and it can cause serious health problems when left untreated. As a sleep medicine specialist, it’s important to me to not only educate my patients on the potentially serious risk of sleep apnea to their overall health, but also to provide them with treatment options that best fit their specific needs.
What is sleep apnea?
With sleep apnea, a person stops breathing during sleep. These pauses can last from as little as a few seconds to more than a minute, and can happen up to 400 times during the night. Sometimes they cause the person to wake up, but it’s also possible to not be aware of them.
The most common type of sleep apnea is called obstructive sleep apnea. It happens when a person’s airway gets blocked by the tongue or other tissues in the back of the throat while they sleep. This limits or stops airflow and makes it harder to breathe.
Why is it so serious?
Stopping breathing, even briefly, can cause loud snoring and disrupt sleep. This leaves you tired or irritable during the day. But I tell patients that the effects can also run much deeper.
Sleep apnea deprives the body of oxygen. This lower concentration of oxygen in the blood can increase levels of inflammation, a response launched by the body’s immune system when tissues are injured by bacteria, trauma, toxins, heat, or any number of other causes including not enough oxygen. The body then releases chemicals that cause blood vessels to leak fluid into tissues and induce swelling.
Inflammation can be short-lived (acute) or it can be chronic. Chronic inflammation can lead to persistent and serious health problems. Sleep apnea has been linked to chronic inflammation. That’s why if it’s not treated, it can raise the risk for:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Certain cancers
Am I at risk?
I’ve seen sleep apnea in people of all ages, including those who are otherwise healthy. That said, the risk does go up as you get older. As the brain ages, it undergoes structural changes that control breathing during sleep. That’s one reason for the higher risk of sleep apnea with age.
Another possible reason is that as we age, we tend to have more fatty tissue build up in our necks and tongues.
People are also at risk for sleep apnea if they:
- Have high blood pressure
- Drink alcohol or use sedatives
- Have certain physical traits, like large tonsils or nasal polyps
- Have a large neck circumference
- Are affected by obesity
What are the warning signs of sleep apnea?
There are some common sleep apnea symptoms that I see time and time again. Often, patients come to me with concerns about things like:
- Very loud snoring, or making choking or gasping noises. These might be loud enough to wake you up. Other times your sleeping partner or roommate might be the one to take notice.
- Always feeling tired or waking up with a headache. Breathing pauses can interrupt sleep and make you tired during the day. When your airway is obstructed, oxygen levels drop, carbon dioxide levels rise and blood vessels dilate. This may cause morning headaches.
- Feeling irritable or depressed, or having trouble concentrating. Getting enough sleep is important for your mental and emotional health. When you don't get enough rest, your ability to think, learn and remember may suffer.
When is it time to seek help?
Sleep apnea can be difficult to spot on your own. And it’s easy to blame fatigue, headaches, irritability, stress or some other cause. That’s why it’s so important to talk to a sleep specialist if you’re consistently tired, even though you’re going to bed at a normal time — or if your sleeping partner or roommate complains about your snoring.
When a patient tells me about symptoms that sound like sleep apnea, I first do a physical exam. That usually includes checking for risk factors like the ones I mentioned above.
Then, if I suspect sleep apnea is the culprit, I’ll confirm the diagnosis with a sleep study. This test monitors how a patient breathes during sleep, including how often they stop breathing. Some patients may be candidates for a home sleep study. Others have their test overnight at our Sleep Disorders Center.
What are the treatment options?
Sleep apnea is easy to treat once diagnosed. Treatment options include:
CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure)
This mask-like device uses gentle air pressure to help you breathe more easily while you sleep. CPAP acts like an air splint that keeps the soft tissue in the throat from collapsing during sleep, which allows the airway to remain open.
Healthy lifestyle habits
Patients who limit alcohol before bed, quit smoking, and manage their weight tell me these changes greatly improve the quality of their sleep.
Removing nasal polyps or large tonsils may be helpful.
Upper airway stimulation (Inspire®)
For people who cannot tolerate using CPAP, there is an FDA-approved implantable device called Inspire® that delivers mild stimulation to the nerve that controls key airway muscles. That stimulation keeps the airway open during sleep.
If none of these are good options for you, there are other therapies and devices to explore. The bottom line: You don’t have to live with poor-quality sleep.
Ready to sleep better?
You deserve to wake up rested and refreshed. If you think you could have a sleep disorder, take action today to improve your life and protect your health.