Sleep apnea is a common, potentially fatal sleep disorder affecting millions around the world. Untreated sleep apnea has been linked to several medical conditions, and has increased health risks for many suffering. According to the American Heart Association, approximately 1 in 5 American adults report having one or more types of sleep apnea.
What is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a potentially life-threatening or fatal medical condition affecting the breathing pattern of a person as they sleep. This dangerous sleep disorder causes a person to periodically stop and start breathing throughout the night.
Many people find themselves wondering if this serious condition can kill you. It is reported that an estimated 38,000 people die in the United States as a result of severe sleep apnea, or one or more contributing health risks.
What are the Types of Sleep Apnea?
There is more than one form of sleep apnea. According to sleep specialists, the most common include:
Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)
Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the airway of a person is physically blocked, and breathing stops as a result. The most common culprit of obstruction is the tongue, as it is at risk of falling to the back of the mouth while sleeping, potentially blocking the upper airway.
Central Sleep Apnea (CSA)
Central sleep apnea occurs when the brain fails to produce the signal needed to tell the respiratory control center to breathe. When this happens, oxygen levels fall, leaving a person to experience an increased work of breathing, or an apnea event.
Mixed Sleep Apnea
Mixed sleep apnea is a type of complex sleep apnea syndrome in which a person experiences obstructive sleep apnea, and central sleep apnea. This makes the patient at high risk for oxygen deprivation and sudden cardiac death.
What are the Risk Factors for Sleep Apnea?
There are many risk factors associated with sleep apnea, experts report these factors to include:
Anyone can develop sleep apnea at any age; however, the risk increases as you get older.
Unhealthy Lifestyle Habits
Unhealthy habits have been linked to the contribution of sleep apnea, including excessive alcohol use, smoking, and obesity.
You are at an increased risk of developing certain sleep disorders when there is a family history present of disordered sleep.
Sleep-disordered breathing is more commonly found in African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans.
What are the Symptoms of Sleep Apnea?
While there are several forms of sleep apnea, obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea often present with similar symptoms. The most common sleep apnea symptoms include:
- One or more apneic events during sleep
- Gasping for air while asleep
- Increased difficulty breathing while sleeping
- Waking with a headache and dry mouth
- Excessive daytime sleepiness
- A decreased sex drive or sexual dysfunction
- Waking often throughout the night to go to the bathroom
- A decline in attention, concentration, and poor performance
What are the Health Risks of Sleep Apnea?
Apneic breathing can produce some of the most serious complications and health risks including:
Excessive daytime sleepiness (hypersomnia) or fatigue poses an extreme risk to a person suffering from sleep apnea, as it makes it more dangerous to perform normal activities, such as working or driving a car.
During an apneic episode, oxygen levels in the body begin to drop drastically, causing a strain on the cardiovascular system, and an increase in blood pressure. When blood pressure reaches a level that is too high, a person is at risk of stroke. Obstructive sleep apnea, the most common type of apnea, has been linked to a higher risk of hypertension (high blood pressure) than other types.
A person living with some form of apnea is at an increased risk of developing heart problems, such as heart attack, stroke, an abnormal heartbeat, or atrial fibrillation as a result of multiple episodes of oxygen deprivation, potentially leading to sudden death.
Sleep apnea has been linked to the development of Type 2 Diabetes, leaving a person to become insulin resistant.
Also known as Syndrome X, metabolic syndrome is a cluster of health issues, including hypertension, abnormal cholesterol, hyperglycemia, and an increased risk of heart disease.
Surgical and Medication Complications
Certain prescription medications, as well as general anesthesia, have been linked to more serious complications after a surgical procedure, resulting in an impaired breathing response.
High-Fatty Liver Disease
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is a serious complication associated with sleep apnea that leaves patients developing scarring on the liver, and abnormal liver test results.
How can Sleep Apnea Lead to Death?
Many people do not die as a direct result of sleep apnea, but as a result of more serious complications associated with this potentially fatal condition such as:
- Chronic oxygen deprivation
- Heart attack
- Cardiac arrhythmia
- Atrial fibrillation
Prolonged, undiagnosed sleep apnea leads to a higher risk of premature death.
How is Sleep Apnea Diagnosed?
According to the American Sleep Apnea Association, sleep apnea requires a diagnosis from a licensed medical professional after specific testing has been conducted. These tests include:
A licensed doctor will conduct a physical examination, assess the current symptoms you are experiencing, as well as to inquire about your past medical history and family history. A physical exam is conducted to assess for common risk factors, such as obesity, enlarged tonsils, or a narrow upper airway.
It is important that you are truthful about your past medical history, as there are many serious health conditions associated with sleep apnea, such as high blood pressure, heart attack, heart disease, lung disease, and obesity.
A polysomnogram, or sleep study, is conducted under the direct supervision of a highly trained team in a sleep center. A sleep study is done with the use of various medical devices and electrodes attached to the body to monitor:
- Electrical activity of the brain
- Eye, muscle, and body movement
- Heart rate
- Breathing rate and pattern
- Blood oxygen levels
- How many times per hour do you stop breathing
You will be monitored as you sleep through the night as REM sleep occurs. When you wake the following morning, your results will be evaluated, and the severity of sleep apnea will be scored depending on many things, including how many times per hour breathing stops.
If you experience loud snoring, breathing issues, or other health conditions related to apnea, a sleep study will likely be beneficial to you.
How is Sleep Apnea Treated?
Treatment for sleep apnea is dependent upon many things, including pertinent symptoms, a person’s medical history, and the type and severity of apnea experienced. While doctors are unable to cure sleep apnea, treatment can help to significantly relieve symptoms versus if it was left untreated. Based on professional medical advice, common treatment options include:
A healthy lifestyle can reduce the risk or symptoms of a person living with sleep apnea. Healthy lifestyle changes commonly include limiting alcohol intake, ensuring you are receiving regular physical activity, maintaining the minimum recommended hours of sleep each night, and losing weight if you are overweight.
Sleep Hygiene Changes
We often do not think twice about the sleep environment we create; however, a dirty or unsupportive mattress can increase the risk of having apneic episodes throughout the night. At PlushBeds, we offer natural, organic, and hybrid latex mattresses, as well as memory foam mattresses made of organic latex and cotton, designed with the ultimate support. Without the use of harmful chemicals in our products, we are able to provide a safe sleep space to you and your partner, allowing for better health, and a better quality of sleep each night.
CPAP machines are common medical machines used to treat sleep apnea. By providing continuous positive airway pressure, a CPAP machine forces air into the lungs, ensuring that you do not suffer from chronic oxygen deprivation, and reducing the risk of sudden death.
Two common oral appliances are used to treat sleep apnea, and reduce the risk that you stop breathing:
- Mandibular advancement device - this type of device is designed to cover the top and bottom teeth as well as hold the jaw in a specific position where it is unable to block the upper airway
- Tongue retaining device - the tongue is a common cause of upper airway obstructions; however, with a tongue retaining device, the tongue is held in a forward position, preventing an upper airway blockage
Children and adults often see successful results in strengthening certain areas of muscles in the face and mouth, with orofacial therapy. This type of therapy focuses on helping a patient to control and strengthen the tongue, soft palate, lateral pharyngeal wall, face, and lips to reduce the risk of an apneic episode as they sleep.
As a last resort, a surgeon may perform various surgical interventions, depending on what is contributing to your chronic obstructive sleep. If all of the above-mentioned, less invasive treatment options have failed to lessen the harmful obstructive sleep and apneic episodes you are experiencing, the following surgical interventions may be performed:
- Maxillary advancement - maxillary advancement surgery involves moving the maxilla or mandible forward, allowing for a more open, or enlarged upper airway, reducing the risk of obstructive sleep.
- Tonsillectomy - enlarged tonsils have been linked to sleep apnea, because when they become too big, they risk blocking the upper airway, leaving a person unable to breathe normally - or breathe at all. During a tonsillectomy, you will be placed under general anesthesia, and both tonsils are cut out by a surgeon.
- Tracheostomy - if you are experiencing severe sleep apnea without relief from all other treatment options, or other surgical interventions are contraindicated, a tracheostomy is performed as a last resort. During surgery, your doctor cuts a hole in your trachea, where a trach tube will be placed, allowing you to breathe normally. This type of surgery is performed to relieve the resistance and pressure accumulated in the upper airway, and reduce the risk of sudden death due to the severity of apnea.
Elevating Your Bed
Some people with mild to moderate obstructive sleep apnea may see reduced sleep apnea symptoms and better sleep by elevating their bed. One study found that elevating the head of patients with OSA 7.5 degrees resulted in an average 31.8 reduction in the severity of OSA.
Therefore, if you have mild-to-moderate obstructive sleep apnea, ask your sleep specialist if an adjustable base could help. If so, PlushBeds has several adjustable bed options to choose from.
If you find yourself experiencing potentially life-threatening symptoms, such as stopping breathing, or gasping for air while you sleep, it is important that you seek professional medical advice as soon as possible.
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