Sleep Apnea: Causes, Symptoms, Tests & Treatments

Sleep Apnea

Do you snore loudly when asleep, or do you often feel very tired when you wake up from your sleep? You could be suffering or be at risk for sleep apnea. Studies have revealed that up to 50% of the world’s adult population suffers from obstructive sleep apnea. 

Untreated sleep apnea can result in life-threatening health conditions such as enlargement of the muscle tissue of the heart, stroke, hypertension, and many others. Sleep apnea is among the most common sleep disorders and can occur at any age including in infants.

Is Sleep Apnea Treatable?

The good news is that there are many options of treatment for sleep apnea. The condition can be managed through restorative sleep programs among other proven approaches.

In this article, we analyze the causes, effects of sleep apnea, sleep apnea symptoms, warning signs, diagnosis, tests, and treatments of sleep apnea.

What Are the Known Types of Sleep Apnea?

There are three major known types of sleep apnea, all derived from continuous studies that mainly focus on the history of sleep apnea and how the condition affects the quality of life.

1. Obstructive sleep apnea

This is the most common type of sleep apnea. It is also known as OSA, which is an acronym derived from the main name. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs mostly when the throat is obstructed by the tongue which makes breathing difficult or even impossible in severe cases as the normal breath is interrupted. This leads to sleep-disordered breathing. Scary, right?

As the breath pattern is compromised, the victim will often wake up suddenly due to loud snoring or difficulties in breathing. The lungs work just okay but the upper airway for normal breathing is usually obstructed. They might experience sudden thrusts especially when they desperately need to breathe, which wakes them up suddenly.

2. Central sleep apnea

With Central sleep apnea, the obstruction does not occur in the upper airway as is the case with the obstructive sleep apnea type. Central sleep apnea is a common form of sleep apnea that is caused by a neurological disorder(brain disorder). In this condition, the body does not struggle to breathe hence the victim does not snore. The nervous system and the brain do not send a signal to breathe hence the person stops breathing automatically. Curious to know what happens next? They do not die! When the breathing stops, this sends the victim into panic mode and they automatically wake up gasping for breath.

Sometimes, central sleep apnea occurs in a pattern known as Cheyne stokes breathing. This type of sleep apnea is a common cause of congestive heart failure, which explains why we often hear of someone dying in their sleep and we do not understand how. Central sleep apnea is also known to be the major cause of atrial fibrillation, which is a heart condition that causes abnormally irregular heartbeat.

Since the symptoms of this type of sleep apnea are mostly hidden, sometimes it is difficult to diagnose central sleep apnea. But the best way to notice that you or a close family member/colleague or friend is suffering from central sleep apnea is by paying attention to their struggles during sleep. If you realize that they are exhibiting these symptoms, then they are most likely suffering from central sleep apnea and so they need urgent help to stay safe from the severe complications of sleep apnea.

3. Complex sleep apnea

This type of sleep apnea combines both obstructive sleep apnea and central apneas though the symptoms are mostly similar to those of OSA.

Studies conducted on the factor for sleep apnea from around the year 2006 have consistently sown that out of samples of people with sleep apnea studied for purposes of such studies, approximately 84% seem to suffer obstructive apnea, 15% seem to be victims of complex sleep apnea and only 0.4% often show symptoms of central sleep apnea. This goes ahead to show that the most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea syndrome.  his type might also be referred to as mixed sleep apnea. 

Causes of Sleep Apnea

The most common cause of sleep apnea in adults has been found to be obesity or excessive body weight which affects the soft tissues of the mouth and throat muscles. The observation is that the prevalence of sleep apnea is most common among these groups of people in the population.

During sleep,  when the muscles of the tongue are more relaxed, the soft tissues tend to block the airways that allow the passage of air to the lungs. People with a body mass index above 30 are more likely to suffer from obstructive sleep apnea.

In fact, some experts have observed that the best way to know whether you’re overweight and therefore at risk of suffering sleep apnea is by measuring the size of your neck!  For men, the neck circumference shouldn’t exceed 17 inches, while for women on the other hand the neck size in circumference should never exceed 15 inches. You can also try using the same method, though an old one, to predict your waist size.

Other known common causes of sleep apnea 

  • Persons of advanced age, or seniors in society, stand a high risk of sleep apnea
  • A narrow throat, which makes breathing difficult
  • Allergies
  • Problem with the nose structure causing decongested airway
  • Smoking creates a healthy environment where the causative factors for sleep apnea can easily thrive
  • Alcohol and drug abuse
  • Dental conditions e.g. overbite
  • Birth defects e.g. down’s syndrome, metabolic syndrome, and Pierre-Robin syndrome
  • Behavioral disorders
  • Weight gain

Can sleep apnea cause death?

Undiagnosed sleep apnea is lethal and can result in death. Central sleep apnea causes strain to the heart muscle which might lead to recurrent heart attacks, blood pressure stroke, drops in blood oxygen, abnormal heartbeats, coronary artery disease, cardiovascular disease, etc.  This might also cause one to develop a risk of heart disease.

Additionally, people with heart failure risks are at a greater risk of succumbing to sleep apnea as it greatly triggers their condition. This is because of abnormal breathing which causes a drop in blood oxygen which is fatal to people with heart disorders. Otherwise, moderate sleep apnea might not cause death. 

Is sleep apnea hereditary?

Research shows that 40% of patients with sleep apnea inherited it from their kin. The remaining 60% is caused by lifestyle conditions. These statistics equally apply to children with sleep apnea. A quick medical history is enough to determine the cause of any common sleep disorder. 

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

The common signs of sleep apnea include:

  • Snoring loudly
  • Sore throat
  • Experiencing a bad morning headache from a sudden drop in oxygen levels during sleep
  • Waking up with a very dry mouth
  • Episodes whereby you stop breathing while asleep( this is witnessed by other persons e.g bed partners)
  • Irregular breathing pattern
  • Low libido and sexual dysfunction
  • Restless sleep
  • High blood sugar
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Daytime tiredness
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Lack of oxygen

Treatment of Sleep Apnea

There are both medical and home-based treatment options for effective treatment for sleep apnea. 

Medical treatment

Some of the common medical treatments for sleep apnea include; 

1. Continuous positive airway pressure therapy(CPAP)

A sleep doctor or sleep specialist will use a positive pressure device to treat severe sleep apnea. This method ensures that the airway is always open by the constant provision of positive air during sleep through a mask. It also helps to relieve nasal symptoms such as nasal obstruction, ensuring that breathing during sleep is constant and continuous.

2. Surgical options

In severe cases, sleep apnea patients are advised to opt for surgery. There are different types of sleep apnea surgery aimed at different outcomes such as shrinking fat deposits in the upper airway or removing enlarged tonsils and excessive tissue in the throat. It is advisable to start with nonsurgical treatments before advancing to surgery. Your doctor will advise on the type of surgery. 

3. Oral appliance therapy

Mandibular repositioning device (MRD) is one of the oral appliances made for patients with mild sleep apnea. The device is positioned to hold back jaws in a forward position hence expanding the space behind the tongue during sleep; this prevents snoring and keeps the upper airway open. Some of these breathing devices have side effects such as jaw pain.

4. Oral drugs

Medications such as Acetazolamide, Triazolam, and Zolpidem are common treatment for sleep apnea. However, you need to consult your doctor before buying over-the-counter drugs.

Home Remedies for Sleep Apnea

There are several remedies that do not necessarily need medical intervention for mild sleep apnea. Here are some natural home remedies for sleep apnea:

1. Weight loss

Health professionals have consistently observed that persons who are generally of excess body weight have a higher chance of suffering from obstructive sleep apnea. This is due to the excess fat on the neck that blocks the upper areas hence causing snoring. It’s time to shun that excess weight. After all, we all know too well that excess body weight adds no value to your life but does the opposite i.e by exposing you to all manner of complications that you can easily avoid. Please take action now. 

If you are suffering from obesity or are overweight and you have found out that you are suffering from sleep apnea, look no further for the cause or solution. Just lose that weight immediately and get on the path to reducing or gradually getting rid of sleep apnea.

2. Keep off alcohol

Alcohol is always a notorious cause of many avoidable medical conditions, and sleep apnea is one of such. It is, therefore, no surprise that too much intake of alcohol is another risk factor of sleep apnea. High alcohol levels in your body will interfere with and reduce the sleep cycles in addition to slowing respiration hence inducing shallow breathing. This decreases oxygen levels in the blood and prevents expulsion of carbon dioxide hence might cause complex sleep apnea.

3. Combat nasal congestion as soon as it appears

Infections in the nasal air passage are triggers of sleep apnea. Make a point of treating all the infections that might affect your nasal area as soon as they appear. This will improve breathing and reduce snoring. You can also make use of simple outpatient procedures to deal with nasal challenges.

4. Change your sleeping position

If you sleep on your back then this is definitely one of the factors that might be causing your sleep apnea. Try sleeping on your left side and watch overnight sleep apnea disappear. This is also advisable for pregnant women as it ensures proper blood flow to the uterus.

When you reposition, this takes away the pressure on the chest thus opening the airway during sleep. This concept has been highlighted by the American Sleep Apnea Association.

4. Increase your physical activity

You can manage your sleep apnea condition through exercise. Exercises have always been identified by experts as an all-around home remedy for so many health challenges including sleep apnea.  When your body is exposed to high levels of activity, your muscle activity in areas such as chest muscles and chest wall improves. This reduces the chances of airway obstruction and breathing pauses which as you have realized bear the risk of death and can even cause sudden death. 

How long does it take to reverse damage from sleep apnea after treatment?

Once you start your medical treatment to change your lifestyle, as long as there is no brain damage, you should begin seeing the results by 3 months including improvement in the quality of your life.

However, some damages caused by sleep apnea, for instance, high blood pressure or heart diseases may be lifelong conditions and can only be managed with regular medication as they can not clear completely. This is why early diagnosis is always recommended early enough to ensure that sleep apnea does not get to these levels.

What are the dangers of untreated sleep apnea?

If left for a long time without treatment, sleep apnea can result in serious damages to the lungs, brain, or even the heart, which causes conditions such as, heart attack, hypertension. Important to note that all these conditions might lead to death if not taken care of.

Continuous restlessness brought about by sleep apnea can cause damage to the brain.

Can sleep apnea be treated permanently?

The concern on whether sleep apnea can be treated permanently is common. Unfortunately, according to sleep studies, sleep apnea is a chronic condition and does not go away easily especially if one is past the age of adolescence. However for children, if combated early enough, it can be treated or dealt with permanently.

You can control sleep apnea with breathing devices and improve the quality of your life with time.

Diagnosis of Sleep Apnea

Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may perform tests in a sleep laboratory to determine the type of sleep apnea you are suffering from: Common approaches include;

Nocturnal polysomnography

In this type of sleep study, your chest is hooked to equipment that monitors your brain activity, lungs, and heart. It also monitors your legs movements, arms movements, and blood oxygen levels.

Home sleep tests

This is a simple sleep study physical exam done at home to monitor your breathing patterns, blood oxygen levels, and heart rate. It can also be done in a sleep center or sleep labs specifically set for people with sleep disorders.

For cases concerning obstructive sleep apnea, the doctor might require a person with sleep apnea to visit an ear, nose, and throat specialist or initially recommend polysomnography to determine the reason why you cannot get a restful sleep.

Final Thoughts

Always remember these quick facts about sleep apnea;

  • Most common sleep disorders are caused by lifestyle problems such as smoking or alcoholic drinks which you can quit in order to save your life, can you?!
  • Try as much as possible to sleep on your left side for healthy blood flow. You can alternate with the right side of course, but the idea is to sleep more often on the left side.
  • Perform short workouts just before bed to ensure great blood flow for that much-needed continuous undisturbed sleep.
  • Avoid sleeping on your back
  • If you are a sleep apnea patient, find a support group around your area for psychological support.
  • Eat healthy foods especially fruits and avoid caffeinated drinks at night before sleep
  • Adhere strictly to any medication from your doctor when diagnosed with sleep apnea, and do not change the medication without your doctor’s authority.

Most importantly, seek medical attention if any of the above-listed symptoms are common in your daily life, especially sleep deprivation. You deserve a healthy sleep!

Finally, sleep apnea is manageable and not a death sentence. Wishing you all a healthy life, starting with healthy sleep!