Would you be tired if you stopped breathing up to 30 times per hour while sleeping and your body woke you up each time to remind you to breathe? That’s exactly what happens to people who suffer from sleep apnea – and many people don’t know they have it.
The airway of a person with sleep apnea becomes blocked or collapses during sleep because the throat muscles automatically relax and the tongue rolls back, causing the tissues to close in and block the airway, says Dr. Yelena Tumashova, a sleep medicine specialist with Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill.
Factors that may increase this include a narrow throat, certain jaw, mouth and tongue shapes and sizes, large necks, obesity and large tonsils and adenoids that can block the airway.
When you don’t sleep soundly, you can feel exhausted the next day.
But more than that, untreated sleep apnea can contribute to or worsen a host of health issues – many serious – including:
- Memory loss, mental confusion and perhaps even Alzheimer’s/Dementia
- Acid reflux
- Adult asthma
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Weakened immune system
- High blood pressure
- Heart problems like heart failure and atrial fibrillation (abnormal heart rhythm), increasing your chance of stroke
- Liver problems such as fatty liver disease and liver scarring
- Digestive issues like GERD and heartburn
- Weight gain
- High blood sugar level/type 2 Diabetes
- Decreased sexual desire and erectile dysfuncion
- Low blood oxygen level
- Morning headaches
- Dry mouth
Statistics show sleep apnea affects more men than women, but a woman’s risk of developing it increases after menopause. It affects about 20 percent of obese people but only about three percent of those with a normal weight.
“If your partner notices you have trouble breathing while you sleep or if you have poor concentration, memory lapses, irritability, daytime drowsiness or other symptoms of not getting a good night’s sleep, you may have sleep apnea,” says Dr. Tumashova. “It’s critical to diagnose sleep apnea, as it can contribute to poor health and shorten your lifespan.”
“There are several treatments available to help keep oxygen flowing to your lungs while you sleep, allowing your airway to remain open. The primary treatment is a device called the continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. The CPAP machine helps to provide a steady flow of oxygen to patients during their restful periods, virtually eliminating the continuous sleep disruptions.
“However, there are other options available if CPAP is not effective or tolerable, including wearing a mouth guard or opting for a small implantable device that gently stimulates your airway muscles to keep your airway open, which can be as effective as CPAP and can be covered by insurance,” Dr. Tumashova says.
If you suspect you may have sleep apnea, Dr. Tumashova recommends talking to your primary care physician about a referral to a sleep specialist to discuss therapy options that would be best for you.
To help determine your risk, you can take a quick sleep apnea risk assessment.