With 54 million people affected, sleep apnea is the second-most common sleep disorder in the United States. Sleep apnea refers to when you momentarily stop breathing during sleep.
A small percentage of the population suffers from central sleep apnea, brought on by mixed communications within the central nervous system. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is far more common and occurs when lying down. While in this position, the muscles in the throat relax, causing the tongue, tonsils and soft palate to gently move downward, making your airway narrow. Sometimes, it narrows so much that it briefly closes off completely, interrupting breathing and reducing the level of oxygen in the blood.
Here you will find a wide array of information related to sleep apnea, including symptoms, risk factors, tests, treatments, and more.
Sleep apnea occurs when there are brief pauses in breathing during sleep, often associated with a partial or complete blockage within the throat. This happens when you lie down to sleep and the muscles in your throat relax. This may lead to a shift in the tongue or soft palate, causing your airway to narrow so much that it briefly closes off completely. A disruption in your breathing can then reduces the level of oxygen in the blood.
Drops in oxygen levels alert your brain that something isn’t working as it should. As a result, the brain wakes the sleeping person up so the airway can be reopened. This becomes a problem when the sleeping person is woken up over and over again, sometimes dozens of times an hour. Repeated awakenings lead to a deficit in deep, restorative sleep.
Sleep apnea impact many of your body's core systems. The affects of sleep apnea have been linked to many health issues, including: irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, depression, heart attack, and stroke. A lack of deep, restorative sleep can also impair attention and short-term memory.
One of the most common sleep disorders in the United States is sleep apnea, affecting an estimated 54 million people, 80 percent of whom are undiagnosed. Sleep apnea affects a person's health and overall quality of life, both in the long and short term.
At a day-to-day level, sleep apnea has been shown to impair cognitive skills, memory, concentration, and decision-making skills. The body requires time to enter deep sleep phases where cells and tissues are renewed, memories are filed away, and waste matter from the brain is eliminated. When instances of sleep apnea occur, the body is jolted out of these important phases and denied the ability to fully renew itself.
Sleep apnea has also been linked to numerous chronic conditions, including obesity, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, depression, heart attack, and stroke.
Sleep apnea affects people of all ages, body types, and genders. In addition to everything listed above, sleep apnea is also linked to erectile dysfunction in adult men and low libido in women. Young children also show increased symptoms of ADHD as a result of sleep apnea.
A number of risk factors can increase the likelihood of sleep apnea, and knowing what they are can help you have greater awareness of the potential for sleep apnea to affect you and your loved ones. These risk factors include:
- Being overweight or obese
- Neck circumference more than 17" in men and more than 16" in women
- Genetically passed-down characteristics such as a naturally narrow airway
- Family history of sleep apnea
- Sleeping on your back
- Consuming alcohol close to bedtime
- Nasal congestion or allergies
Although it is statistically more common for an older, overweight man to have sleep apnea symptoms, sleep apnea can affect anyone: children, women, and even professional athletes.
In addition, certain sleep apnea symptoms can drive poor lifestyle choices that may make the disorder even worse, creating a cycle of poor sleep hygiene and increased health problems. Among those are the usage of caffeinated drinks to stay awake and alcoholic drinks to fall asleep.
Sleep apnea affects 54 million people in the United States alone. Here are some common symptoms.
Feeling tired all the time
During sleep apnea, your brain senses that your body isn’t getting enough oxygen, a signal is sent for you to wake up in order to kick-start breathing.
This means that you could wake up dozens of times throughout the night, and feel exceptionally tired the next morning.
If your spouse or partner regularly mentions your loud, persistent snoring—or gasping for breath after snoring—it may be worth looking into.
Falling asleep unexpectedly
Feeling unusually drowsy or falling asleep without meaning to like while driving or at work are strong symptoms of sleep apnea. Instances of excessive drowsiness happens because your body never had the chance to reach deep sleep at night.
Waking up to pee
Some people think that a full bladder is what wakes us up. This isn’t always true. In fact, the act of waking up is the inciting action that wakes up your bladder, and sleep apnea can sometimes trigger this action.
Learning the symptoms of sleep apnea is an important step in gaining control of your sleep health.
If you suspect you have a sleep disorder like sleep apnea, it is recommended that you visit a specialized sleep professional. A primary care provider, sleep doctor, or sleep dentist will be able to assess your situation and determine the next steps to take.
A sleep dentist can examine your jaw and airway and make recommendations for a sleep doctor, if necessary. Here are some topics you can discuss during a visit with your sleep doctor:
- Sleep apnea symptoms and any risk factors you may have
- What amount of sleep you need
- What time you should go to bed
- Your overall sleep hygiene and wind-down routine
- Options for addressing any sleep issues
A doctor will be able to diagnose your condition and prescribe treatment. This may involve you returning to your sleep dentist to get fitted for a mouthguard to wear while you sleep. This special oral appliance helps keep your jaw in place and can reduce snoring and sleep apnea. They may also recommend that you lose weight, try positional therapy or wear a CPAP, a special machine that keeps your airway open at night.
There are a variety of screening methods that you and your doctor can use to assess your risk for sleep apnea.
The STOP-BANG Survey
This eight-step questionnaire addresses common sleep apnea risk factors. 'STOP-BANG' is an acronym formed by the first letter of each word of each question.
The Berlin Survey
This questionnaire consists of 11 sleep apnea-related questions grouped in 3 categories. Like the STOP-BANG survey, it relies primarily on self-reporting.
The Beddr SleepTuner
Engineered to measure and assess stopped breathing events, the SleepTuner takes the science found in a sleep lab and puts it into a device small enough in your pocket. It monitors heart rate, sleep position, breathing and more with clinical-grade accuracy, then generates reports that are easy to understand and act on.
While a variety of options exist to screen for potential sleep apnea risk factor and symptoms, a medical professional will be able to give an sleep apnea actual diagnosis.
A sleep apnea test gathers crucial data points about a person as they sleep and can help determine whether or not a patient has sleep apnea. There are two types of tests.
A home sleep apnea test, or HSAT, is performed at home, includes fewer sensors, and is only used for testing for sleep apnea. A HSAT is best for people at risk for moderate to severe sleep apnea, no other sleep issues, and would prefer to not stay overnight in a sleep lab.
A polysomnography, or PSG, is conducted in a sleep laboratory, and includes all the sensors necessary in diagnosing sleep disorders. A PSG is best suited for someone who has other health issues besides sleep apnea, like congestive heart failure or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Patients who are starting therapy for sleep apnea or other sleep disorders may benefit because of a PSG’s ability to measure many different inputs. That said, PSGs tend to be more expensive, but costs can vary depending on insurance carriers.
Regardless of which test is conducted to assess sleep related breathing issues, looking into having a sleep test performed is a positive step to improving your health and well-being.
A doctor specializing in sleep disorders will be able to make the best recommendations for sleep apnea treatments. Some common treatment options for sleep apnea include:
Sleeping on your side can work wonders for treating sleep apnea because less pressure is put on your air pathways.
Although obesity does not automatically mean a person has sleep apnea, having a heavier mass of skin around the neck and throat puts greater pressure on the air pathways, and weight loss can relieve this extra pressure.
Similar to mouth guards used for sports or fittings for orthodontic retainers, these molds are customized to your physiology to keep the jaw and tongue in place while you sleep, which can result in a reduction in severity of sleep apnea as well as a reduction in snoring.
This special device that regulates breathing and keeps air pathways open is commonly prescribed and has a high rate of success.
These treatments are not intended to be temporary fixes, but permanent lifestyle changes. You and your doctor can work together to find the combination that best helps you overcome sleep apnea.
Designed to treat sleep apnea, oral appliances are worn like mouth guards. They reposition your jaw, helping to keep your airway path open while you sleep. When used correctly, they can be an effective treatment for sleep apnea.
First, a sleep dentist performs an examination of your oral cavity. They can't make a formal diagnosis of sleep apnea, but will be able to refer you to a doctor in their network. You return to the sleep dentist after the doctor makes their diagnosis of sleep apnea.
Next, the sleep dentist creates a custom mold of your teeth. The mold is then sent to a lab where the appliance is created.
Once your oral appliance is ready, you will return to your dentist’s office for a fitting. After that, it’s a matter of consistently wearing the appliance every night. It only works if you use it!
You may have seen “boil-and-bite” style devices sold online or in drugstores. Don’t fall for these imitations, as they do not compare to FDA-cleared appliances. Sleep dentistry is best left to professionals.
If you're curious about how an oral appliance may help with snoring or sleep apnea symptoms, consult a sleep dentist in your area.
The most common and effective sleep apnea treatment is a special device called the Continuous Positive Airway Pressure, or CPAP.
This machine features a special mask and hose and is typically the first thing that comes to mind when people think of medically recommended sleep apnea treatments. It is considered by many to be the "gold standard" when it comes to sleep apnea treatments
So, how does CPAP work?
First, know that sleep apneas happen when our esophagus relaxes as we lay horizontal in bed, so much so that our breathing is compromised. By using a gentle, steady stream of air, the machine ensures our respiration pathways stay open during the night, creating an environment for steady, consistent breathing and oxygen saturation in our bodies.
This level of optimal oxygen saturation is achieved by wearing the above-mentioned mask with a hose attachment, through which the air flows. Statistically the most effective treatment, especially for obstructive sleep apnea, the CPAP is commonly recommended by doctors and, with consistent use, typically provides the patient with a positive outcome.
Sleep apnea symptoms are often helped or hindered by the position of the sleeping person. Studies prove that sleeping on your side can help alleviate symptoms of sleep apnea.
When laying down, gravity and body weight work against us. Gravity pushes down on our chest, diaphragm and neck, disrupting the flow of oxygen. Side sleeping alleviates the effect of gravity on the airway, enabling better breathing and greater oxygen saturation.
Treating sleep disorders via positioning is called positional therapy. Sleep positioners are often used to encourage side-sleeping. There are a number of sleep positioner products on the market, from angled foam wedges to wearable bumper belts and padded shirts.
The Beddr SleepTuner is especially helpful in accurately tracking the position of the sleeping person, how long they hold certain positions, as well as their oxygen saturation levels throughout the night. It can also show you how your breathing changes when you change sleeping positions, and how your breathing changes when used in conjunction with your prescribed sleep apnea therapy, like CPAP.
A doctor can best assess your situation and make their recommendation for treating your sleep apnea and get you on the road to better sleep health.