Becoming Aware of Obstructive Sleep Apnea
People who feel exhausted during the day may suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, a sleep disorder that has only become widely recognized in the last few years. Sleep apnea affects 12 million Americans. It can go unnoticed, but also cause serious health problems if left untreated.
In sleep apnea, breathing stops or becomes very shallow during sleep. Each pause in breathing typically lasts 10 to 20 seconds or more. These pauses can occur 20 to 30 times or more an hour.
The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea. In this form, the throat briefly collapses because of excess tissue, causing pauses in breathing. The pauses in breathing cause the oxygen level in the blood to drop and the carbon dioxide level to rise. Normal breathing then starts again with a loud snort or choking sound. Another type of sleep apnea is called central apnea. It is rare and happens when the area of the brain that controls breathing does not send the correct signals to the breathing muscles during sleep.
The body needs sleep for rest and rejuvenation. Adequate, high-quality sleep is necessary in order to enhance mood, mental clarity, and even prevent serious consequences to general health.
Other health problems
Untreated sleep apnea can increase the chance of developing high blood pressure, a heart attack, or stroke. It can also increase the risk for diabetes, work-related accidents and driving accidents.
If you have sleep apnea, you may not realize it. Your only clue to this sleep disorder may be waking up tired and falling asleep during the day.
A person with sleep apnea may not get enough sleep to begin with, a common problem in today's society. You may assume your problem is a lack of sleep—and take an afternoon nap or sleep in on the weekends. But the real problem is your quality of sleep.
Your bed partner may notice the chief symptom of sleep apnea: snoring and long periods of absent breathing. In obstructive sleep apnea, the soft palate and soft tissues of the pharynx block the airway so much that you simply stop breathing. The buildup of carbon dioxide and interruption of oxygen eventually causes you to arouse enough to gasp for a breath of air. Then the cycle begins again. This disruption prevents you from getting high-quality sleep.
Not everyone who snores has apnea, but many do. There is the regular snore—then a pause. The person has stopped breathing. Then the air rushes back in with a distinctive, loud snort, and then a breath. Many people do this a few times an hour and that is OK if they feel alright in the morning. But apnea requires treatment if the person stops breathing dozens of times an hour, and wakes up exhausted.
Obesity ranks high as a cause
One of the chief causes of apnea is obesity. The weight of extra soft tissue in the throat and an obese chin presses down on what is already a narrow airway to begin with. Thin people can develop apnea, too. The throat muscles can lose their tone with age. Other causes are large tonsils and adenoids and a small mouth and throat area.
The first thing to do if you think you have apnea, or any other sleep disorder, is to discuss it with your health care provider. He or she may refer you to a sleep specialist. The sleep specialist will interview you. If the sleep disorder is affecting your life or threatening your health, you may be invited into a sleep lab. There, you will be connected to monitors and fall asleep in a comfortable, bedroom-like, hospital room. Staff will measure everything from your breathing and brain waves to the tone of your chin muscles. As you doze, they will diagnose you.
Doctors may suggest many solutions to apnea, including weight loss. One popular treatment is the Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine. The CPAP mask is worn over your nose. As you sleep, the staff adjusts the CPAP so it blows just the right amount of air into your body, propping open your airways. Then, you take the machine home to use at night.
People suffering exhaustion from apnea are often delighted with CPAP. Sometimes, people with less severe cases find the machine uncomfortable and not worth the effort. Some of these people may get a dental appliance, which is installed to pull out the jaw enough to open the airway.