Sleep apnea syndrome is a common yet prevalent sleep disorder that affects millions of people worldwide. Sleep apnea syndrome if left untreated will impact both physical and mental well-being. Therefore, it is important to understand sleep apnea syndrome to help individuals to recognise the signs and symptoms of sleep apnea syndrome and seek appropriate diagnosis and treatment. In this post, we will be discussing what sleep apnea syndrome is, discuss its symptoms, explore the common causes and provide some management and prevention tips for sleep apnea syndrome.
What is sleep apnea syndrome?
Sleep apnea syndrome, also known as sleep apnea, is a sleep disorder characterized by recurring episodes of interrupted breathing during sleep. You might have sleep apnea if you snore loudly and still feel tired even after a full night’s sleep. Sleep apnea can have a significant impact on a person’s health and well-being and if left untreated, may lead to more serious problems.
What are the types of sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea is typically classified into three main types:
Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)
This is the most common form of sleep apnea. It occurs when the muscles in the back of the throat relax during sleep, which leads to the partial or complete blockage of the airway. This type of sleep apnea causes breathing interruptions, resulting in reduced oxygen levels and fragmented, nonrestorative sleep. OSA is often characterized by loud and disruptive snoring, gasping or choking sounds, and frequent awakenings throughout the night which leads to excessive daytime sleepiness.
Central Sleep Apnea (CSA)
Central sleep apnea is less common and differs from obstructive sleep apnea in its underlying causes. CSA occurs when the brain fails to send proper signals to the muscles responsible for controlling breathing during sleep. This lack of drive to breathe during sleep results in insufficient ventilation and compromised gas exchange and a temporary cessation of respiratory effort. Unlike OSA, there is no physical blockage or obstruction in the airway.
Treatment-emergent central sleep apnea
Also known as complex sleep apnea, this is a combination of both obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. It occurs when a person initially presented with obstructive sleep apnea, but developed into central sleep apnea after receiving treatment for obstructive sleep apnea. Complex sleep apnea can be more challenging to manage as it requires addressing both the blockage in airways as well as the central control of breathing.
Sleep apnea can also be classified based on severity, ranging from mild to severe.
Why is knowing about sleep apnea important?
Sleep apnea is a serious medical condition that can have significant implications for an individual’s health. People with sleep apnea are associated with an increased risk of various health conditions such as high blood pressure, heart diseases, stroke and diabetes.
Sleep apnea will also significantly impact an individual’s quality of life. Without sufficient rest due to the interrupted sleep throughout the night, it can impair alertness and increase risk of accidents, especially performing tasks that require high levels of concentration. Excessive daytime sleepiness can also lead to decreased vigilance, slower reaction time and impaired decision-making abilities.
Knowing about sleep apnea is important to help individuals identify the risk factors and take preventive measures to reduce the likelihood of developing the condition. Individuals can also explore treatment options to improve their quality of life.
What are the symptoms and signs of sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea can present a variety of symptoms, which may vary in severity among individuals. Symptoms of sleep apnea mainly happen while you sleep and may include:
Intense and frequent snoring is often a symptom of sleep apnea. This type of snoring may be loud and disruptive, which are sometimes accompanied with gasping, snorting or choking sounds.
Pauses in breathing
These pauses can last for a few seconds to a minute and are usually followed by a loud snort or gasp as breathing resumes.
Waking up a lot
Sleep apnea disrupts the normal sleep pattern, causing frequent awakenings throughout the night. People with sleep apnea may experience a sense of restlessness and a feeling of exhaustion despite spending an adequate amount of time in bed.
Due to these sleep disruption, sleep apnea may also result in discomfort during the day, such as:
Excessive daytime sleepiness
Feeling excessively tired or drowsy during the day even after a full night’s sleep is a common symptom of sleep apnea. Individuals may find it hard to stay awake or concentrate on tasks in various situations.
Having a headache when you wake up, especially in the morning can be a symptom of sleep apnea. The blockage in their airway prevents our body from getting enough oxygen during sleep which leads to oxygen deprivation, therefore leading to headaches upon waking up.
Irritability and mood swings
Due to sleep deprivation, individuals may experience mood swings due to restlessness and feeling irritable, which will lead to a variety of psychological problems such as stress, anxiety and depression.
Dry mouth or sore throat
Breathing through the mouth due to airway obstruction during sleep can cause dry mouth or a sore throat upon waking.
It is important to note that while the above signs and symptoms may indicate the presence of sleep apnea, a proper medical diagnosis is still necessary for confirmation.
What are the common causes of sleep apnea?
Many conditions can cause sleep apnea, and often multiple factors contribute to its development. The common causes of sleep apnea include:
Obesity and overweight
This is a common cause of sleep apnea. People who are obese or overweight have increased fat deposits in their necks. This accumulation of fat can narrow the airway, making it more prone to collapse during sleep.
Age and gender
Sleep apnea can happen to anyone at any age, but it becomes more prevalent as individuals age. Besides building up fatty tissues, normal changes in how your brain controls breathing during sleep may increase your risk of sleep apnea as you age. Generally, sleep apnea is also more common in men.
Certain structural abnormalities in the upper airway can increase the risk of sleep apnea, such as large tongue, narrow upper airways and large tonsils.
Family history and genetics
Individuals with a family history of the condition are more likely to develop it themselves. Besides, your genes can affect how your brain controls your breathing during sleep.
Various health conditions or underlying medical conditions such as nasal congestion, allergies, heart diseases, neurological diseases and even changes in hormonal level can cause sleep apnea.
Smoking and alcohol consumption
Smoking can increase the inflammation in your upper airway, contributing to sleep apnea. The use of alcohol and sedatives will relax the muscles in the throat, making the airway more prone to collapse during sleep. It also affects how your brain controls sleep and the muscles involved in breathing.
How is sleep apnea diagnosed?
Sleep apnea is typically diagnosed through a combination of medical history evaluation, sleep assessments, and diagnostic tests. Physical examinations may also be conducted to assess anatomical factors that could contribute to sleep apnea, such as neck circumference, nasal congestion, or enlarged tonsils.
Sleep study, also called polysomnography, is a painless test that measures how well you sleep and how your body responds to sleep problems. It is a common test to diagnose sleep apnea. It is usually conducted overnight and records the brain waves, heart rate, muscle activities and oxygen level in your blood during a full night of sleep. This information helps to identify the presence and severity of sleep apnea.
How sleep apnea is treated and managed?
Sleep apnea can be managed with various treatment approaches but the time it takes to feel improvement can vary among individuals and depends on factors such as the severity of sleep apnea. Lifestyle changes and making certain lifestyle modifications play a big role in managing sleep apnea. These may include losing weight if overweight or obese, avoiding alcohol and sedatives before bedtime, sleeping on your side instead of your back, and practicing good sleep hygiene.
Breathing devices such as continuous positive air pressure (CPAP) machines is the most common treatment for sleep apnea. The CPAP machine delivers a continuous stream of pressurised air which helps keep the airway open and prevents breathing interruptions. In some cases, surgery may be carried out to remove the obstruction that causes the block of the airway.
Besides adhering to treatment, we can also incorporate fruits and vegetables that are rich in nutrients in our diet to manage the symptoms caused by sleep apnea. Taking enough B vitamins in our diet ensures our body gets additional support to combat the tiredness and fatigue due to the sleep deprivation caused by sleep apnea.
In conclusion, it is important to consult with a healthcare professional or specialist if you think you experience symptoms of sleep apnea, to get an accurate diagnosis. Proper diagnosis can allow appropriate treatment to be carried out at the early stage to effectively manage sleep apnea and improve overall sleep quality and health.
- The dangers of uncontrolled sleep apnea. The Dangers of Uncontrolled Sleep Apnea | Johns Hopkins Medicine. (2022a, November 1). https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/the-dangers-of-uncontrolled-sleep-apnea#:~:text=People%20with%20sleep%20apnea%20might,can%20be%20significant%2C%20Jun%20says.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.-a). Causes and risk factors. National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/sleep-apnea/causes