We often hear about the importance of a good night’s sleep. Sleep refreshes the body, plays an important role in brain development and even helps wounds heal more quickly. Poor sleep quality can increase the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. Symptoms of sleep apnea, which include snoring, shallow breathing, a complete stop in breathing, or gasping or choking sounds, can interfere with a restful sleep.
Apnea is a pause in breathing that lasts for at least 10 seconds, leading to a brief period of waking up. Obstructive sleep apnea is when the throat muscles relax and block the upper airways. Most of the time, a person with apnea doesn’t realize they have woken up.
Obesity, narrowing of the upper airways and having a narrow throat can increase the risk of developing sleep apnea. Alcohol and sleeping pills may worsen the symptoms of apnea, such as loud snoring—although not all snoring leads to apnea and apnea can occur without snoring.
An estimated 80 to 90 percent of the adult U.S. population with sleep apnea has not been diagnosed with it. Many people go undiagnosed because they don’t wake up during the night and just accept daytime fatigue as a fact of life rather than a sign of a medical issue. Also, diagnosis usually requires an overnight stay in a specialized sleep clinic. Sleep clinics may not be available in every community, especially smaller towns or rural areas.
In addition to disrupting a person’s sleep pattern, sleep apnea causes blood oxygen levels to be lower than normal and carbon dioxide levels to rise. These physiological changes may cause daytime sleepiness, overall fatigue, morning headaches and difficulty concentrating. The effects of sleep apnea go well beyond just a bad night’s sleep: Long-term apnea that isn’t treated can have negative effects on the heart, brain, circulation and metabolism.
The most effective treatment for sleep apnea is a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. CPAP delivers pressurized air into the upper airways through a mask worn over the nose. The continuous air pressure keeps the airways open. However, only about half of all people who start using a CPAP will wear it for a full night’s sleep. Other treatments include oral appliances, including mouth guards, or even surgery.
If your bed partner reaches for their earplugs when you get ready to go to sleep or you find yourself dozing off at your desk in the afternoon, ask your doctor about sleep apnea.
John Chatham, DPhil, FAPS, is a professor of pathology in the Division of Molecular and Cellular Pathology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.