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The Dangers of Sleep Apnea

Some people are more prone to airway obstruction — partial or complete — during sleep. Complete obstruction during sleep is known as obstructive sleep apnea, while partial airway obstruction during sleep is known as upper airway resistance syndrome.

Obstructive sleep apnea is a serious medical condition that requires immediate medical attention. If neglected, sleep apnea can cause life-threatening complications. This problem affects 2% to 4% of the middle-aged population. When airway obstruction occurs, blood oxygen levels decrease and carbon dioxide levels increase. The brain acts to regulate breathing, which can lead to the patient briefly waking up. This can happen multiple times, and every time the patient wakes up, the brain sends signals to the upper airway muscles to open the airway. Re-established breathing is usually accompanied by snoring.

Although recurrent awakening is important to restore breathing, it prevents the individual from having enough sleep and affects sleep efficiency.

What are the symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea?

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness and fatigue
  • Cessation of breathing during sleep
  • Snoring, gasping, and choking (may cause sudden awakening from sleep)
  • Obesity
  • Frequent urination at night
  • Reduced libido
  • Morning headaches

Diagnosis and treatment

Polysomnography,  a sleep test,  is usually done to diagnose sleep apnea. The test measures brain waves, muscle tension, eye movement, respiration, oxygen levels in the blood, and audio monitoring (for snoring, gasping, etc.).

Obstructive sleep apnea can be primarily treated in a similar manner to snoring, with recommendations such as:

  • Weight loss
  • Sleeping on your side. (There are ways to maintain this position, including sewing a pocket into the back of pajamas and placing a tennis ball in it.)
  • Refraining from smoking, alcohol, and sedatives. Your doctor may recommend other options, such as a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. CPAP is a primary treatment for obstructive sleep apnea and involves wearing a pressurized mask over your nose while you sleep. The mask is attached to a small pump that forces air through your airway, which keeps it open. CPAP eliminates snoring and prevents sleep apnea.

Snoring

Not all snoring is linked to obstructive sleep apnea. By definition, snoring is the hoarse or harsh sounds that occur during breathing (usually inhalation) when air flows past relaxed tissues in the throat, causing the tissues to vibrate. Snoring can be a problem without airway obstruction and without affecting sleep stability. Called primary snoring, this is more of a social problem than a medical issue.

To control snoring, one should:

  • Lose weight, if appropriate
  • Sleep on your side, not on your back
  • Refrain from alcohol and sedative use
  • Use nasal adhesive strips applied to the nose to help increase the area of the nasal passage, enhancing breathing
  • Use oral or dental devices that help keep the airway open. These may help to reduce snoring in three different ways. They may:
    • Bring the jaw forward
    • Elevate the soft palate
    • Prevent the tongue from falling back in the airway.
  • Undergo surgery. Traditional, under general anesthesia, laser surgeries or radio-frequency tissue ablation can be used to eliminate unwanted tissue in the oral cavity. If you are experiencing sleep difficulties, loud snoring, or are suffering from chronic fatigue, be sure to talk to your primary care physician and mention these symptoms that can be a result of obstructive sleep apnea.
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