Sleep apnea is a serious disorder which results due to the interruption of breathing during sleep. Sometimes the interruption can be as much as hundred times less breathes than normal. Consequently, the brain and the rest of the body do not get sufficient oxygen supply. This impacts the quality of life of the person and also increases the risk of developing serious medical conditions.
Sleep apnea is a disorder which often goes undiagnosed as it is difficult to detect the condition. Also, blood tests do not help in diagnosing sleep apnea. A member in the family or a bed partner is the first person who may notice the signs of this condition.
The symptoms which are commonly experienced by people with sleep apnea include:
- Loud snoring
- Recurrent awakening or choking or difficulties in sleeping
- Dry and sore throat after getting up in the morning
- Drowsiness or lack of energy
- Headaches especially in the morning
- Decreased interest in sex
- Changes in mood
Based on the causes, sleep apnea is of two types:
- Obstructive sleep apnea occurs due to the blockage of airways. It is a more common type of sleep apnea.
- Central sleep apnea does not involve blockage of airways but results when the brain does not send signals to the muscles to breath.
Sleep apnea can occur in people of any age group but is more common after the age of 40 years. The other risk factors include:
- Male gender
- Large neck size
- A family history of sleep apnea
- Nasal obstruction due to allergies or sinus problems
- Gastrointestinal reflux disorder
If sleep apnea is left untreated it can lead to the below complications:
- High blood pressure
- Heart failure, heart attack or irregular heart beats
- Worsening of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder)
Additionally, people with sleep apnea show poor performance in the daily activities.
When someone complains of the symptoms associated with sleep apnea, the doctor performs a sleep apnea test known as polysomnogram. This test electronically records the physical activities while the person sleeps. The reports are helpful in determining if the person has sleep apnea or other sleep disorder.
Further testing as detailed below may be necessary to choose the right treatment:
- Electro-oculogram (EOG) is performed to record the eye movements which are required to determine the stages of sleep.
- Electromyogram (EMG) is done to record muscle activity such as teeth grinding, facial twitches, or leg movements. It also determines if the person experiences REM stage (a state of intense dreams).
- Electroencephalogram (EEG) is done to measure the activity of the brain.
- Electrocardiogram (ECG) is conducted to record the rhythm and rate of heart beat.
- Snore microphone is performed to record the snoring activity.
- Nasal airflow sensor helps to record the airflow.
If the person is suffering from mild sleep apnea then changes in the lifestyle are sufficient. If the condition does not improve, then the below treatment options are chosen based on the cause of sleep apnea:
If nasal allergies are the cause, then medicines will be provided to treat the allergy.
The doctor may recommend the use of certain devices to keep the airways open. These include:
- Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), a machine which delivers air at pressure through the mask kept over the nose during sleep.
- Expiratory positive airway pressure (EPAP), a relatively smaller device placed over each nostril. It allows free flow of air during inspiration but increases the pressure during expiration to keep the airways open.
- Oral devices are another option which keeps the throat open.
In some cases surgery may be necessary. Surgical options include:
- Placing implants to widen the airways
- Tracheostomy is performed to create a new airway passage
- Uvulopalatopharyngoplasty is a surgery which helps in the removal of the tissue from the back of the mouth and top of the throat
- Jaw repositioning is done to reduce the obstruction in the airways
The below bedtime tips can prevent sleep apnea to a large extent:
- Sleeping on one side
- Using a nasal dilator to open the nasal passage
- Elevating the head portion of the bed by about 4-6 inches
Additionally, certain throat exercises as suggested by the doctor, which can be performed at home.
Lifestyle changes which help to reduce the risk of developing sleep apnea are:
- Stopping the habit of smoking to prevent the swelling of the airways
- Avoiding alcohol consumption especially before bedtime
- Avoiding the use of sleeping pills
- Maintaining healthy body weight
- Exercising regularly