However, going by what the latest research says, it is vital you guard against complacency. If your partner says you stop breathing in the middle of your snoring, get yourself to a doctor to find out if you have sleep apnea. (Click the diagram on the right to see the differences.)
I’m not exaggerating – the American Association for Respiratory Care says that as many as 10 million Americans suffer from undiagnosed sleep apnea. It can be fatal.
Snoring Or Sleep Apnea?
Snoring is the sound that a person emits during sleep and is most commonly a result of something obstructing the flow of air through the nose and mouth. While this may be a natural result of the aging process or certain hereditary conditions, it may also arise from other problems.
The airways may be blocked by one of the tissues within the throat – the soft palate, the uvula, the tongue or the tonsils – or because of nasal congestion due to allergy or nasal deformities.
Some people also tend to snore loudly during deep sleep because the muscles of the tissues in the throat are deeply relaxed, and this obstructs the flow of air. Although a person may snore, he or she continues to sleep, often without waking in between.
Sleep apnea is a more complicated condition. There is an actual disruption in the breathing pattern during sleep. A person with sleep apnea emits snores, but also wakes up in between, when they can no longer breathe.
Some people with sleep apnea may also experience a choking or gasping sensation that forces them into wakefulness. This condition of obstructive sleep apnea is a result of a drastic blockage of the airways.
There is another, rarer condition called central sleep apnea. In this case, there may not be any obstruction to the breathing process from within the nose or throat; rather, the brain does not correctly signal the respiratory muscles to do their job and this causes a sudden stop of breathing.
The Dangers of Sleep Apnea
A person who has sleep apnea will often suddenly wake after experiencing a blockage of breathing, and this can happen anywhere between 10 and 50 times in a single night. This disturbed sleep has several adverse effects – it can make you feel groggy throughout the day.
If this continues every day, you may find yourself constantly battling fatigue and declining health. Many people also experience frequent headaches and find their alertness levels dipping during the day, increasing the risk of accidents.
Several research studies have found evidence of a link between obstructive sleep apnea and stroke, heart disease and hypertension. A 2010 study supported by the U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute says that a person with sleep apnea is twice as likely to suffer a stroke as a person without this condition.
The International Diabetes Foundation quotes from research papers that say there is a strong link between sleep apnea and diabetes, too. The disturbed breathing of sleep apnea means lesser oxygen reaches the lungs and this can cause a sharp spike in blood pressure as well as the secretion of cortisol and adrenaline – hormones that make your tissues less sensitive to insulin and in turn, affect the way your body processes glucose.
Sleep Apnea in Women
Most snoring jokes revolve around men, and women are portrayed to be victims. In reality, snoring has more to do with the anatomy of the mouth and nose and a person’s weight and lifestyle than with gender. When it comes to sleep apnea too, women of all age groups may be affected by it. Pregnant women are known to suffer from a specific condition called gestational sleep apnea.
Treatment Options for Sleep Apnea
Once a doctor performs a sleep study, he or she can identify if you suffer from sleep apnea. The severity of your symptoms will determine your treatment regimen. In persons with mild sleep apnea, a few lifestyle changes may be all that is required, such as:
- Sleeping on your side
- Losing weight by dieting and exercise
- Avoiding alcohol at bedtime
- Quitting smoking
- Using anti-allergy medicines to keep the nasal passage open
Use of Anti-Snoring Devices
Oral appliances or mouthpieces are used by people who snore; they may also be useful in treating people with mild sleep apnea. These anti-snoring devices work on the principle of changing the alignment of the tongue and jaw in a manner that the airways are not obstructed in sleep.
However, in persons with moderate to severe sleep apnea, anti-snoring devices alone will not suffice and they require some other form of treatment, with Continuous Positive Air Pressure (CPAP) being the most common.
What is CPAP?
CPAP therapy refers to the use of a machine to blow air down the user’s throat at a particular pressure. The person using this machine fits a mask over the nose and mouth and when the machine is switched on, there is a continuous flow of air into the throat that ensures the airways stay open.
In most people with sleep apnea, the CPAP machine needs to be used on a daily basis to keep the snoring as well as sleep apnea away.
Surgery for Sleep Apnea
In some people with sleep apnea, if the doctor suspects that the airways are unusually narrow, or that the tissues are abnormally lax, he or she may recommend surgery.
Sleep apnea surgery may involve removing the excess tissue from the throat, or shrinking it; in some cases, it may be possible to make the lax tissues stiff by inserting approved materials.
Just because you snore, it does not mean you have sleep apnea; similarly, there may be people who do not snore very loudly, but have sleep apnea.
The litmus tests that can help you decide if you need to see a doctor are these – ask your partner if it sounds like you stop breathing in sleep and observe how you feel during the day. If you are just a snorer, you are not likely to stop breathing during sleep, nor will you have any symptoms of daytime sleepiness or fatigue, because you have got your night’s quota of sleep.
However, if you stop breathing in your sleep and find yourself fighting daytime sleepiness and constant exhaustion or irritability, it is an indication that you need an expert’s opinion of whether you suffer from sleep apnea.