Sleep Apnea 101: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment Options

Healthy sleep with regular rhythms of REM are what keeps humans going during our fast paced lives each day. And anyone who does not get enough quality sleep knows that it can change everything about your life. Tons of sleeping disorders and health concerns can cause a person to get a less-than-ideal amount of quality sleep. Narcolepsy, hypersomnia, snoring, restless leg syndrome (RLS) are just a few conditions that can turn lives upside down simply by interrupting regular sleep patterns. One other very unfortunate sleeping condition is Sleep Apnea.

Sleep Apnea is a fairly common disorder that occurs when normal breathing is interrupted while a person is sleeping. At least 18 million adults in the United States have been diagnosed with sleep apnea, and it’s likely that many more actually have it but aren’t aware. Some people’s sleep apnea symptoms are caused by physical blockage of the airway, while other people are affected because their brains don’t tell their bodies to breathe during sleep. Either way, severity of sleep apnea may range from just a few episodes of stopping breathing per night, to hundreds of occurrences.

The National Institute of Health indicates that sleep apnea is the leading cause of drowsiness during the daytime. But more than just making you tired, many symptoms of sleep apnea are extremely risky and should be taken very seriously as they can be linked to all kinds of other health problems.

Signs and Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea signs and symptoms can come on gradually, working to interrupt your sleep and leaving you feeling horrible during the day. Signs and symptoms of sleep apnea in adults include briefly stopping breathing as often as thirty times every hour, typically without the knowledge of the person who is affected. If you share a bed with someone, it is likely that they will be aware of many of these symptoms before you are.

What are Symptoms of Sleep Apnea?

  • Snoring loudly and frequently
  • Waking up with dry mouth or sore throat
  • Waking sometimes with gasping or feeling of choking
  • Fatigue or sleepiness during the day
  • Headaches in the morning
  • Silent pauses in breathing during sleep
  • Restlessness during sleep including insomnia and recurring wakefulness
  • Forgetfulness, lack of libido, and changes in mood
  • Waking up in the night to go to the bathroom (Nocturia)
  • Irritability or depression
  • Night sweats
  • Difficulty getting up in the morning

Sleep Apnea Symptoms in Men

sleep apnea symptoms in men

Sleep apnea symptoms in males should be paid the most attention to because men run the highest risk of being affected by this disorder. This may be partly because men are generally larger people, with larger necks, and both of these issues can be risk factors for this condition. Men are often found to have a deeper, louder snore which can be an indication of sleep apnea. Waking up and gasping for air is a symptom that is more common in men than in women.

Sleep Apnea Symptoms in Women

sleep apnea symptoms in women

Although many similarities exist when comparing sleep apnea conditions between men and women, there are certainly some differences as well. Statistically, women are less likely to suffer from sleep apnea than men, but millions of women in the US are still affected by this condition that poses serious health risks.

While sleep apnea symptoms in females are mostly the same, women are more likely to experience mood-related symptoms such as depression, moodiness, as well as insomnia and daytime fatigue. Rather than waking up with gasping for air or choking, women with sleep apnea may simply have a tendency to be less likely to be able to sleep at all. This may even lead to a mis-diagnosis of the condition.

Both men and women often experience snoring in conjunction with sleep apnea, as well as for a variety of other reasons. However, for women who do manage to get some sleep, chronic snoring can often be a sign of obstructive sleep apnea.

Sleep Apnea Symptoms in Kids

sleep apnea symptoms in kids

Pediatric sleep apnea symptoms may be less obvious than parents might think, particularly if they don’t know what to look for in their children. Although sleep apnea is less common in children than adults (5% of children vs. 26% of adults over age 30), it is still worth considering if your child might be showing symptoms. If you have any concerns that your child might be affected by this disorder, it is vital to seek medical attention right away to get a diagnosis and determine treatment options.

Sleep apnea symptoms in children may include:

  • Snoring (around 10% of snoring in children is caused by sleep apnea)
  • Daytime sleepiness or sluggishness (sometimes thought to be laziness)
  • Regular pausing when breathing during sleep, with possible gasps or snorts
  • Disrupted sleep, wakefulness at night, or abnormal positioning during sleep
  • Concentration difficulties
  • Issues with behavior (may be confused with ADHD) or learning problems
  • Poor school performance
  • Mouth breathing—sometimes due to enlarged adenoids or tonsils
  • Wetting the bed
  • Drooling or choking during sleep
  • Sweating at night
  • Grinding of teeth

Sleep apnea symptoms in infants may be similar to those of older children. However, as babies’ brains are still developing, some disturbances in breathing (called “periodic breathing”) can happen in normal, healthy infants. Pre-term infants are particularly at risk of sleep apnea, as are large, full-term infants.

Infants affected by sleep apnea may exhibit these symptoms:

  • Prolonged breathing pauses (20 seconds or longer)
  • Problems with low oxygen or slow heartbeat
  • Repeated patterns of breathing problems lasting less than 20 seconds

Although in recent years some medical experts believes that SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) was related to sleep apnea, no link has been found between the two conditions.

Severe Sleep Apnea Symptoms

One of the most dangerous and severe sleep apnea symptoms that can occur is the lack of breathing that happens during sleep. When your body ceases to breathe regularly, whether due to an obstruction or a missed brain message, you can become starved of oxygen. When your body does not get the oxygen it needs over a period of hours every night, this can result in a myriad of other problems that your body can experience.

In rare cases, sleep apnea can be fatal as it is linked to increased chances of dangerous health problems such as high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, and arrhythmias (irregular heart beat rhythms). Getting checked out by a medical professional is critical in the diagnosis, treatment, and care of anyone with sleep apnea.

Symptoms of sleep apnea may seem mild, but should never be ignored. One Yale University study discovered that those who have sleep apnea may be at twice the risk for a stroke, as well as increased risk of high blood pressure, blood clots, and other conditions associated with the cardiovascular system.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea Symptoms

obstructive sleep apnea symptoms

Obstructive Sleep Apnea is a form of the disease that is caused by physical barriers that you’re your body from being able to breathe as well at night as it should. Symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea are basically the same as those caused by central sleep apnea.

In addition to being overweight, obese, having a large or thick neck, or having small airways, risk factors of obstructive sleep apnea may also include:

  • Smoking
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Diabetes
  • High risk of Heart Disease or Stroke

In order to diagnose the problem, your doctor may ask you and/or your partner if you have symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea. Diagnosis may also include having a sleep study or spending the night in a sleep lab in order to monitor air flow, breathing patterns, blood oxygen levels, eye movements, heart rate, brain electricity activity, or muscle activity.

Central Sleep Apnea Symptoms

Symptoms of central sleep apnea may be similar to those of obstructive sleep apnea. Both often result in fatigue, depression, memory fog, abrupt awakening, shortness of breath, and insomnia. Snoring is less prominent in this type of sleep apnea because there is no physical obstruction to the airways. However, some people with central sleep apnea do still snore.

Causes of Sleep Apnea

Risk factors for people with sleep apnea may be controllable, while others are simply genetic. Here are some factors to consider if you are wondering: what are the causes of sleep apnea?

Higher risk factors are connected with people who:

  • Are over the age of 40
  • Are male
  • Have sleep apnea in their family history
  • Are overweight (Body Mass Index of more than 25)
  • Have a small jaw bone, large tonsils, or a large tongue
  • Have a large neck size (more than 16 inches for a woman or 17 inches for a man)
  • Have GERD (Gastroesophageal reflux)
  • Have sinus problems, allergies, deviated septum, or other nasal obstruction
  • Have high blood pressure (Hypertension)

Of course, even if you are a female who is under the age of 30 with a small neck size, that doesn’t mean that you are not at risk of sleep apnea. What causes sleep apnea in different people can be very unique, and even just a genetic disposition and sinus problems can be enough to act as sleep apnea causes.

What Causes Sleep Apnea in Adults

Two types of sleep apnea in adults have similar symptoms but different causes. One more common type is Obstructive Sleep Apnea, which means that something is physically getting in the way of airflow getting through to the lungs while the person is sleeping. This may due to a person having a large neck or being overweight so that the soft tissues of the neck overlap and prevent breathing. Other people may struggle with secondary conditions such as deviated septum or nasal congestion which cause airway blockage during sleep.

The other type is Central Sleep Apnea, where the brain does not appropriately communicated to the body that it needs to breathe regularly while sleep. This could be due to the use of certain medications containing opioids, some medical conditions such as heart failure, or other reasons the brain is not communicating properly to the body while it sleeps. Both types of sleep apnea are dangerous and can lead to various other health problems.

What Causes Sleep Apnea in Kids

Causes of sleep apnea in children may be very different than sleep apnea in adults. For instance, age, gender, and neck size may contribute to the disorder in adults, but children often have sleep apnea because of enlarged adenoids or tonsils.

However, in the same way that obesity can be a factor for sleep apnea in adults, overweight children between the ages of 12 and 18 may also be at higher risk of sleep apnea. This is because the fatty tissue in the neck and through may cause disruption during sleep, restricting air flow and interrupting the regular breathing patterns. Younger children, even those who are overweight, are not likely affected by this.

Parents of children with suspected sleep apnea should begin by watching their children sleep and taking note of breathing irregularities. However, a polysomnogram may be needed in order to diagnose sleep apnea, as even just one breathing interruption per hour is necessary to diagnose mild sleep apnea in a child. Moderate sleep apnea in a child is indicated by 5-15 incidences, and a severe case is considered to be 15 or more occurrences per hour.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea Causes

If you are wondering what causes obstructive sleep apnea, the answer is fairly simple. The physical blockage of airways in the throat keep the body from being able to breathe, which deprives the lungs, brain and body of the oxygen that it needs in order to function properly.

Causes of obstructive sleep apnea may include:

  • Collapsing of the tissue that is in the back of the throat. The upper airway muscles relax when you fall asleep, and restrict. For people with large necks who sleep on their backs, this relaxation of the upper airway muscles may combine with gravity and cause the back of the tongue to fall into the airway, narrowing it and reducing the ability to breathe. Many times, this airway restriction is the cause of the snoring sound, as the tissues in the throat vibrate or flap while you are trying to breathe.
  • Nasal congestion due to allergic rhinitis may also be a cause of obstructive sleep apnea because the nasal passages are blocked and cause restriction of air flow. This may increase the snoring sound and put you at risk of oxygen deprivation if your nasal passages are swollen due to seasonal or year-long allergies.
  • Family history may also be a cause of sleep apnea. Although you do have some control over how the size and health of your body, sometimes physical features such as a recessed jaw or large neck may come into play without any ability to control this. On the other hand, inherited causes of obstructive sleep apnea that you can change include subscribing to healthy eating habits and exercise which will limit your weight gain and hopefully keep you healthier.

Central Sleep Apnea Causes

Find out what causes central sleep apnea may be a little more complicated than discovering what is causing your obstructive sleep apnea. This is because the underlying causes are linked to the brain rather than simply to the physical makeup of the body.

The variety of causes of central sleep apnea may include:

  • Older Age. Adults over the age of 65 are more likely to be affected by central sleep apnea.
  • Medication. Some medications, particularly opioids, may alter the brain’s ability to control breathing during sleep. Talk to your doctor about how to manage your prescriptions to avoid this problem.
  • Brain Issues. Certain conditions of the brain including brainstem lesions, stroke, or brain tumor can impair the natural ability the brain would otherwise have to regulate breathing.
  • High Altitude. Some people are susceptible to sleep apnea problems when they visit a place with high altitude because of the thinner air. This typically goes away when a person returns to normal altitude levels.
  • Obstructive Sleep Apnea. Some people who have the obstructive type will eventually develop the central type, simply because of the use of the CPAP treatment machine. After a period of time using the machine, the brain becomes unable to regulate breathing. This is referred to a as “complex” sleep apnea as it is a combination of both types.

Sleep Apnea Treatment Options

While sleep apnea can be very dangerous if left untreated, most people with the condition are able to live normal lives with minimal treatment. This may include some lifestyle changes (such as losing weight and stopping smoking) as well as these commonly sleep apnea treatment options:

CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure)

This treatment for sleep apnea is the most commonly prescribed by physicians to deal with sleep apnea, whether it originates from obstructive or central conditions. Essentially, CPAP is a breathing machine that gently forces a continuous flow of air through the nose, keeping the airway passages open and stimulating regular breathing.

Although this is a very effective form of treatment to keep the oxygen flowing, many people find this type of machine to be disruptive to their sleep (as well as their partner’s) as it requires them to wear a mask that some people find to be uncomfortable. Other people may have trouble falling asleep to the sound that the motor of the CPAP machine makes.

ASV (Adaptive Servo-Ventilation)

Certain people do not respond positively to CPAP, but ASV can be another option. This treatment also delivers pressurized air through a mask, but also works to induce a smoother breathing pattern. It may also be capable of “delivering” a breath if it detects that you haven’t taken one on your own within a certain amount of time. People with symptomatic heart failure are not recommended to use ASV.

Sleep Apnea Treatment Centers

Seeking to provide alternative sleep apnea options, some sleep apnea treatment centers have cropped up in the United States over recent years. One such treatment center offers a minimally invasive surgical procedure that uses Radio Frequency Ablation (RFA) to affect the tissue at the back of the throat. The procedure takes just a few minutes. The theory is that, when the tissue heals, it is tightened and becomes smaller, which makes it less likely to interfere with your breathing during sleep. Although this may be a promising sleep apnea treatment, many people are still concerned about the fact that that this is a surgical procedure.

Surgical Sleep Apnea Intervention

Those who have need of a severe sleep apnea treatment may benefit the most from a surgical intervention that is more extreme than the RFA noted above. Adults who need surgical treatment for severe sleep apnea will find their doctors make recommendations based on their specific needs and causes.

This may include a UPPP (uvulopalatopharyngoplasty) to remove excess tissue from the pharynx and soft palate, which comes with a success rate of about 50%. Nasal surgery may be recommended for those with a deviated septum or cartilage. Soft palate implants (the Pillar Procedure) might be effective, which is the placement of polyester rods into the soft palate, stiffening it and making it less likely to inhibit breathing.

Another fairly common surgery for sleep apnea is the repositioning of the hyoid bone which may have the result of expanding the airway. Various jaw surgeries and tongue surgeries may also be recommended for adults.

Children with sleep apnea may particularly benefit from surgery if it is their adenoids or tonsils that are causing breathing problems while they sleep.

Sleep Apnea Treatment Without Mask

If you’re looking for a sleep apnea treatment without a mask, then some of the most basic steps you can take have to do with living a healthier, more active lifestyle. Because sleep apnea is often associated with being large or overweight, simply subscribing to a healthier diet and regular exercise regimen is one of the best things you can do.

For many people who suffer from sleep apnea, just losing around 10% of body weight (for example, losing 20 pounds for a person who weighs 200 pounds) can significantly reduce the number of times they stop breathing at night. Reducing of smoking and drinking alcohol can also add to a healthier lifestyle and reduce the risk of sleep apnea.

Other treatments for sleep apnea without a mask may depend on the causes and severity of your condition. For instance, if your condition is caused by nasal congestion or sinus problems, the use of a nasal spray may help. Some people benefit from sleeping on their sides instead of their backs to help keep breathing passages from being restricted.

Sleep Apnea Treatment Without CPAP

Simply another form of “masked” sleep apnea treatment, CPAP gently forces air through the airways so that they can’t close and restrict breathing during sleep. Although CPAP is the most common form of treatment doctors recommend for sleep apnea, many people find this to be an option that they don’t prefer. Whether it’s because the mask inhibits comfortable sleeping positions, the sound of the machine is disturbing, or it’s just not attractive to their partners, many people with sleep apnea do not likely using a CPAP machine. This leaves them looking for alternative treatments for sleep apnea.

Many options are available if you prefer a sleep apnea treatment without CPAP, depending on the severity of your condition and the cause of your sleep apnea. You may want to tray an alternative sleeping position, aided by a new adjustable mattress or a side-sleeping pillow. Or you may simply need a nasal decongestant that will allow you to breathe more clearly if you have allergies that are causing your sleep apnea. Whatever the case, there are many surgical and non-surgical options for obstructive sleep apnea treatment that don’t require the use of a CPAP machine.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea Treatment

Treatment for obstructive sleep apnea may differ from treatment for those with central sleep apnea. If a physical barrier is causing your airways to be constricted during sleep, then certain treatments may be recommended. More invasive treatments may include surgery, while a CPAP machine may be less interruptive to your life. If your obstructive sleep apnea is due to being overweight or obese, of course a healthy lifestyle and losing weight will certainly be of increased benefit.

Central Sleep Apnea Treatment

If the cause of your sleep apnea is not due to physical obstruction, then it is coming from a more centralized place—namely, your brain. Treatment for central sleep apnea may be the same or different than those for obstructive sleep apnea. Your doctor may recommend a CPAP machine, but there is also a need to treat the underlying cause of your condition. This could be as simple as taking a look at prescription medications that could be inducing sleep apnea (opioids and sleeping pills can be the culprits) and a gentle reduction of these might help. If heart failure is a cause, then therapy for that condition may automatically improve your central sleep apnea.

Some people with central sleep apnea may benefit from simple use of supplemental oxygen while they sleep, while other people may benefit from the use of certain medications that have been shown to improve breathing for those who suffer from sleep apnea. These medications are prescribed by your physician and are particularly effective if your sleep apnea is caused by high altitude conditions.

Alternative Treatment for Sleep Apnea

Because sleep apnea has the power to remove your ability to get a good night’s sleep, one of the questions you need to ask is: what can I do to restore my quality sleep? One sleep apnea home treatment may be as simple as changing the mattress on which you sleep.

People with low incidence rates of sleep apnea events each day may find that a new mattress that allows them to sleep more comfortably in a position on their sides rather than on their backs can change everything for them. For some people, even just a new type of pillow may aid in the efforts to sleep more comfortably on their sides.

While healthy people typically find that sleeping on their backs is the most comfortable position that encourages better REM stages and less joint stiffness, people with sleep apnea are different. Because back sleeping promotes the gravitational causes of obstructive sleep apnea, which induce snoring and airway blockage, more severe sufferers may find that an alternative treatment for sleep apnea is to find a way to sleep in a safer, healthier position. Adjustable mattresses allow you to take full advantage of a comfortable sleeping position without risking their health.

Natural Treatment for Sleep Apnea

While surgery is an option for many people who suffer from this condition, most people keep that as a last resort and are instead looking for a sleep apnea natural treatment. Even CPAP devices, dental adjusters can be effective but may also cause other types of difficulties. Some people prefer a more natural, homeopathic treatment for their sleep apnea. As mentioned above, those with less severe cases of sleep apnea may find that simply changing to an adjustable mattress will benefit their ability to sleep safely.

Other, more natural, ways to manage your less-severe sleep apnea without surgical intervention or a mask including taking better care of yourself by eating right and exercising to lose weight. (Essential oils such as grapefruit and cinnamon may help you with your weight-loss efforts.) Other natural treatments for sleep apnea include minimizing the amount of alcohol you drink, as well as reducing the use of sedatives, as these can negatively affect your sleep patterns. Quitting smoking may help to open up your airways and allow you to breathe better while you are sleeping.

One of the simplest ways to combat mild sleep apnea could be to add a humidifier to your bedroom, or several rooms in your house if you live a very dry climate. Arid conditions can promote swelling of the airways as well as nasal congestion and dry throat, so adding humidity to your rooms may promote sinus drainage and keep your scratchy throat from swelling and prompting obstructive sleep apnea.

New Treatment for Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea new treatments include various surgical interventions, depending on the cause of your sleep apnea. These may range from mandibular (jaw) advancement surgery to nasal surgery to using radiofrequency to create more tightness of the soft palate that is situated at the back of the throat.

The FDA also approved upper airway stimulation just a couple of years ago, a treatment that involves implanting a nerve stimulating device in the throat that senses when the person stops breathing and stimulates the muscles to keep the airway open. This one is typically used for those who have failed to find relief from sleep apnea by using CPAP treatments. Outpatient surgery is required for this device.

Wrapping it Up

Sleep Apnea is a condition that can be dangerous if undetected, but can also be managed through a variety of alternative methods. People with severe cases may choose to go the route of CPAP or other breathing machine, but for those who want to try to manage differently there are many other options available today. Adjustable mattresses, memory foam mattresses, side-sleeping pillows, weight loss management, and other natural methods can allow you to take your health into your own hands. Of course, anyone with a sleeping condition should be under the care of a doctor, but the choice of how you manage your sleep apnea is totally up to you!

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