Sleep Apnea: The Quiet Epidemic

Sleep apnea affects nearly 25 million Americans, but what is it? 

In medical terminology, a- means away from, and -pnea means breathing, so apnea translates to “away from breathing.” Sleep apnea occurs when you fall asleep and stop breathing. There are two types of sleep apnea:

  • Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) – this is the more common type. OSA happens when your throat closes while you’re asleep.
  • Central Sleep Apnea – This is uncommon and more difficult to treat. Central apnea happens when your brain stops sending signals to your lungs to take a breath. This is usually caused by a drug overdose or a brain injury and is a medical emergency.

What Causes Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea can result from being overweight, but that is not the only possible cause. OSA plagues people of all ages, sizes, and ethnicities. Some people are born with oversized tonsils or a large tongue. When you fall asleep, the muscles in your whole body relax – including the muscles in your throat. Normally, your body has a built-in defense against this. Your airway is made out of stiff rings of cartilage that hold it open when you lay down and go to sleep.

However, your tonsils and tongue are made of “soft tissue” that can become droopy when you relax and fall asleep. If your soft tissue is too large or too heavy, it can droop enough to completely close (or “obstruct”) the back of your throat, which blocks air from moving through your airway and to your lungs. The deeper you drift into sleep, the worse the obstruction gets. You’ll go from snoring (a partial obstruction) to not breathing (a complete obstruction, or “apnea”). When you stop breathing, your body reacts by waking you up just enough to get you to breathe again. Most people do not remember waking up throughout the night but never feel like they have gotten restful sleep.

When Does obstructive Sleep Apnea Become a Problem?

Many people can go their whole lives with mild sleep apnea and never do anything about it. OSA becomes a problem when it starts affecting your daily life. OSA qualifies for clinical treatment when you stop breathing for ten or more seconds at least 30 times an hour. Some symptoms of OSA include:

  • Snoring loud enough to wake others
  • Waking up gasping for air or feeling like you can’t breathe
  • Waking up with a dry mouth and throat
  • Being constantly tired during the day
  • Falling asleep during daily downtime
  • Frequent headaches when you wake up
  • Difficulty focusing or paying attention
  • Memory loss
  • Depression

In kids, common signs also include:

  • Bed-wetting
  • Hyperactivity
  • Behavioral problems
  • Poor performance in school
  • Learning difficulties
  • Slowed growth/low weight

It may seem crazy that not sleeping well can affect so many areas of your life, but the time that you sleep is when your body does some of its most important work. Your body grows and heals while you’re sleeping. When you reach deep sleep, your brain processes all of the information you’ve taken in during the day and filters it into your memory. If you stop breathing and wake yourself up every time you reach deep sleep, your body and brain don’t have the time to do any of those things.

How is Obstructive Sleep Apnea Diagnosed?

Traditionally, OSA is diagnosed in two steps:

  • You meet with your doctor, and they ask you questions about your sleep habits (including your experience with the symptoms listed above.) You will most likely be asked to fill out a quiz called the “Epworth Sleepiness Scale.” This quiz will place you on a scale of 0-24 and will tell your doctor if your daytime sleepiness is dangerous (some people fall asleep while driving!) or just inconvenient.
  • You will go to a sleep study center for overnight observation. Asleep tech will watch your breathing pattern, heart rate, oxygen levels, and brain activity while you sleep. The results of this study will tell your doctor if you have sleep apnea and how severe it is. At this point, your doctor will provide you with a diagnosis and discuss treatment options.

Newer technology has allowed for the development of more comfortable options. Companies like Livosa make-at-home sleep study kits that help people identify possible issues. These kits can record all of the data that a sleep tech would collect in a sleep study, but you do it from the comfort of your bed.

What Are My Treatment Options for Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

Treatment for OSA is extremely tailored to meet the needs of the individual. Many cases of sleep apnea can be taken care of with simple lifestyle changes. Losing weight or changing the position you sleep in are common solutions. Other options include using nasal decongestants or allergy medications to reduce swelling, cutting back on alcohol consumption, or restricting the use of sleeping pills. Do not make any changes to the medications you take without first consulting your doctor.

If your OSA is not cleared up with lifestyle changes, there are still several options to choose from.

  • Oral devices – a retainer designed to pull your jaw forward. This provides support for the soft tissues in your throat and keeps your airway open. You can be fit for an oral device by your dentist.
  • CPAP, BiPAP, APAP – if the thought of wearing a mask at night is unsettling, don’t worry! There are many options these days, many of which only cover your nose. You’re sure to find one that makes you comfortable – and you won’t believe the difference it will make in your quality of sleep!
  • Surgery – in rare cases, removing the tonsils is necessary. This is more common in young kids with oversized tonsils who wouldn’t tolerate other treatment options.

If you think OSA might be plaguing you, check out Livosa’s Free Sleep Apnea Assessment, or call (866) 233-0486 to see if you might qualify for a sleep study.