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Sleep Apnea: Everything You Need to Know About the Disorder You Didn't Know You Had

Sleep apnea afflicts more than 12 percent of adults. See how this common sleep disorder is more serious — and more curable — than you think.

Man sleepingImagine sitting at your desk, going about your work, when suddenly you stop breathing. You can't control it. It just happened. For 10 seconds, you struggle for oxygen until you're finally able to breathe again.

Two minutes later, it happens again. And again and again, 30 times in an hour. How many times would it take for you to seek help?

Probably not very long. Yet this happens every night to nearly 30 million adults in the United States. Some wake up gasping for air. Others aren't even aware of what's going on and that they're suffering from sleep apnea.

So that's what sleep apnea is?

Yep, this nightly breathing difficulty is sleep apnea, a serious and potentially life-threatening sleep disorder. It occurs when your air flow is decreased or completely blocked during sleep, so less oxygen is getting into your lungs.

There are two types of sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common. It happens when your upper airways — your nose, throat, and nasal passages — are obstructed. Central sleep apnea, where there is no obstruction but the brain is failing to initiate a breath, is less common.

Left untreated, both types can be deadly.

How do you know if you have sleep apnea?

You don't know what you do when you're asleep. But your spouse or another family member probably does. And that's how most people learn they have sleep apnea. They're told that they snore heavily, choke, sleep with their mouth open, gasp for air or are restless sleepers. There are other signs — ones you may notice if you have sleep apnea:

  • Sore or dry throat and headaches in the morning
  • Sleepiness during the day or while driving
  • Forgetfulness
  • Mood swings
  • Low libido
  • Insomnia

Men are much more likely to suffer from sleep apnea than women, especially after reaching middle age. But a lot of the risk factors have to do with your body and anatomy. Large tonsils, large tongue, small jaw, large neck — those are all anatomical risk factors for sleep apnea. If you have allergies, sinus problems or a deviated septum, you can have nasal obstructions that cause breathing issues.

The biggest risk factor is weight. Overweight and obese people are more likely to have sleep apnea. Pressure from the added weight on your upper chest and neck cause breathing issues when you lie down.

What makes sleep apnea dangerous?

It's always dangerous if you can't breathe. But long-term sleep apnea is linked to a number of serious health problems.

"Sleep apnea has a profound effect on cardiovascular health and blood sugar," says Gregory Hicklin, MD, a board-certified sleep medicine physician at The Iowa Clinic West Lakes Sleep Center. "It can contribute to weight gain, high blood pressure and heart problems."

Because when you're not breathing, your blood pressure goes up. Your brain then alerts your blood vessels to tighten up to increase the flow of oxygen. Once you're awake, those problems can persist and cause high blood pressure. Also known as hypertension, high blood pressure leads to many other serious heart problems: stroke, heart attack, heart failure, and an irregular heartbeat.

And in a vicious cycle, the weight issues that cause sleep apnea can lead to further weight gain. When you're lacking quality sleep, you might feel too tired to exercise. Or you may try to increase your energy levels by eating. Sleep deprivation also disrupts the hormones that control appetite, making you hungrier than if you were getting good rest.

What treatment options are out there?

"Treating obstructive sleep apnea is pretty easy and the improvements are dramatic," says Dr. Hicklin.

Weight loss is often the first step for patients, especially in mild cases of sleep apnea. Other lifestyle changes can help too. Sleeping on your back increases the pressure on your lungs and restricts your airways, so changing sleeping positions can improve your breathing. Smoking causes swelling in the upper airways and makes sleep apnea worse. Quitting is always a good idea.

There's also medical equipment to help you breathe better at night, like a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device or bi-level positive airway pressure (BiPAP) device. These sleep apnea machines increase the air pressure in your throat so that you're airway doesn't collapse as you breathe in. They are connected to masks — either a nasal mask or full face mask — so you have a constant stream of oxygen.

PAP machines are the standard in sleep apnea treatment. Once you get used to wearing the device, your sleep can change drastically. A PAP machine eliminates the symptoms of sleep apnea. You'll no longer snore, suffer from breathing pauses, choke or wake up gasping for air.

A lack of sleep impairs your quality of life. So once you take care of your symptoms and start sleep better, you'll get rid of the daytime symptoms like headaches, forgetfulness, and sleepiness. Sleep apnea devices also lower your blood pressure at night and in the day, decreasing your risk for all the dangerous health issues down the road.

Are you notorious in your family for snoring loudly or breathing with your mouth open as you catch your Zs? Schedule a sleep study to have your sleep monitored so you can stop your sleep apnea before it takes a toll on your health.

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