Do you wake up in the night gasping for air? Do your snore loudly or have strange, upsetting nightmares? Do you find that you have to go to the bathroom to urinate several times throughout the night? Then you may actually have a sleeping disorder called sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is actually one of the most common sleep disorders that is diagnosed and treated by sleep clinics. Other common sleep disorders including insomnia (inability to sleep), narcolepsy (falling asleep often throughout the day), night terrors and Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS).
Central and Obstructive Sleep Apnea Disorder
Two main types of sleep apnea exist, plus a third type that is actually a combination of the other two types. Central Sleep Apnea (CSA) and Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) are both serious conditions that are marked by pauses in breathing that happen during sleep. When these two disorders occur together they are referred to as Complex Sleep Apnea Syndrome.
Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common form of this sleeping disorder, caused by physical blockage of airways during sleep that results in pauses in breathing and limited oxygen intake. When the blockage happens, the body may stop breathing for up to a minute or more until the brain triggers the body’s emergency response causing it to wake up and begin breathing again. This is why many people with sleep apnea sometimes wake up with a sensation of choking or gasping for air.
Central sleep apnea is a less common form of this condition, caused by a malfunction in the brain or neurological system. This happens when a malfunction in the brain causes it to “forget” to send the message for the respiratory system to breathe at appropriate times. When this happens, the brain eventually ends up waking up the body with a start reflex in order to cause it to begin breathing again.
Sleep Apnea Effects
Here are some of the problems that people who have sleep apnea may face:
Heart Problems. When the body is not breathing properly, the heart works harder to circulate oxygen throughout the body and particularly to the brain. This extra work that the heart has to do can lead to a myriad of problems with heart health. High blood pressure is common in people with sleep apnea and, even though the troubles begin at night, this ultimately leads to the person have high blood pressure at all times of the day. The heart is stressed which may lead to it becoming enlarged, beating irregularly (cardiac arrhythmia), developing heart disease, and even causing a stroke. Sleep apnea may lead to heart attack that could ultimately be the cause of premature death.
Stroke. Associated with heart problems, a stroke occurs when the blood clots so that the brain is cut off of oxygen, causing damage to the brain cells. Because of the strain put on the circulatory system by sleep apnea, people who have this sleep disorder are often put at a higher risk of having a stroke. This can cause physical disabilities as well as affecting the way a person thinks, communicates, and feels.
Weight Gain. The difficulty with sleep apnea and weight gain is that the two may often feel inextricably intertwined into a vicious cycle. People who are overweight tend to develop sleep apnea more often as the extra fatty tissue in the neck may cause blockage of airways. But people who do not sleep well often have problems gaining weight as their bodies are not functioning at peak performance, and their fatigue may cause them to overeat or eat unhealthy foods. As more sleep is lost more pounds are added, and as more pounds are added sleep apnea tends to become more severe.
Diabetes. Related to the weight gain often found in people with untreated sleep apnea, type 2 diabetes is commonly associated with this sleeping disorder. Not only is the body less able to function on less sleep, but the stress that is caused by waking abruptly or being chronically sleep deprived can increase a person’s blood sugar levels which results in diabetes.
Relationship Issues. When you are snoring loudly, your roommate or spouse may find your snoring intolerable and they end up sleep deprived. Not only that, but your lack of sleep may cause you to be more irritable and can even cause carelessness that can result in job loss or dangerous accidents.
Symptoms of Sleep Apnea Sleeping Disorder
Some of the most common signs and symptoms of sleep apnea:
- Loud snoring
- Observed pauses in breathing during sleep
- Occasionally waking up choking or gasping for air
- Headaches in the morning
- Inability to concentrate, forgetfulness, poor work or school performance
- Sleepiness and fatigue during the day
- Falling asleep during activity (such as driving)
- Getting up to urinate several times during the night
- Insomnia or inability to sleep well at night
- Irritability, mood changes, depression, relationship problems
- Decreased libido
- High blood pressure
- Frightening nightmares, sometimes about choking
Risk Factors for Sleep Apnea
- Large neck circumference (17” or more in men and 16” or more in women)
- Family history of sleep apnea
- Being overweight or obese
- Using alcohol, tranquilizers, or sedatives (particularly narcotics/opiates) on a regular basis
- Being male (men are much more likely to develop sleep apnea)
- Being older
- Nasal congestion, allergies, or asthma
Sleep Apnea Sleep Disorder Treatments
Although sleep apnea is a serious condition, there’s hope for diagnosis and treatment that can lead people back to living a normal, healthy lifestyle. The treatment of sleep apnea will depend very much on the cause. For instance, if sleep apnea is caused by excess weight, a doctor may prescribe treatment with a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure machine (CPAP) that helps with breathing at night. This, along with healthy eating and an exercise regimen, may help with weight loss and possibly even remove the need for the breathing machine in time.
Someone who has sleep apnea caused by a deviated septum or other physical blockage in the airways may require corrective surgery, as might someone who has sleep apnea due to a recessed jaw. People with have central sleep apnea will most likely be treated with a CPAP machine, and may also have certain medications adjusted as use of opiates can sometimes be the root problem for CSA.
If you or someone you know is at risk of sleep apnea, it’s necessary to visit a medical professional to get the needed care and attention. Diagnosis and treatment of any sleep disorder, including sleep apnea, is a critical step toward feeling well-rested, living in a healthier manner, and basically taking control of your own life.
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