Always Tired? Sleep Apnea May Be to Blame

What is sleep apnea? 

Sleep apnea is a common disorder that causes your breathing to stop or get very shallow while sleeping. Breathing pauses can last from a few seconds to minutes. They may occur 30 times or more an hour. 

The most common type is obstructive sleep apnea. It causes your airway to collapse or become blocked during sleep. Normal breathing starts again with a snort or choking sound. People with sleep apnea often snore loudly. However, not everyone who snores has sleep apnea. 

What are the symptoms? 

The hallmark symptom of the disorder is excessive daytime sleepiness. Additional symptoms of sleep apnea include restless sleep, loud snoring (with periods of silence followed by gasps), falling asleep during the day, morning headaches, trouble concentrating, irritability, forgetfulness, mood or behavior changes, anxiety, and depression.  

Not everyone who has these symptoms will have sleep apnea, but it is recommended that people who are experiencing even a few of these symptoms visit their doctor for evaluation.  

How does it affect my health? 

Untreated, sleep apnea can be life-threatening. Excessive daytime sleepiness can cause people to fall asleep at inappropriate times, such as while driving.  

Sleep apnea also puts individuals at risk for stroke and transient ischemic attacks (TIAs, also known as “mini-strokes”) and is associated with coronary heart disease, heart failure, irregular heartbeat, heart attack, and high blood pressure.  

Although there is no cure for sleep apnea, recent studies show that successful treatment can reduce the risk of heart and blood pressure problems. 

Who is at risk? 

You are more at risk for sleep apnea if you are overweight, male, or have a family history or small airways. Children with enlarged tonsils or adenoids may also get it. Excessive alcohol consumption, as well as smoking, can also increase your risk of sleep apnea. 

Doctors diagnose sleep apnea based on medical and family histories, a physical exam, and sleep study results. 

How is it treated? 

There are a variety of treatments for sleep apnea, depending on an individual’s medical history and the severity of the disorder. Most treatment regimens begin with lifestyle changes, such as avoiding alcohol, losing weight, and quitting smoking. Medications that relax the central nervous system (for example, sedatives and muscle relaxants) may also be used. 

Some people are helped by special pillows or devices that keep them from sleeping on their backs, or oral mouthpieces to keep the airway open during sleep. 

If these conservative methods are inadequate, doctors often recommend continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), in which a face mask is attached to a tube and a machine that blows pressurized air into the mask and through the airway to keep it open. Also available are machines that offer variable positive airway pressure (VPAP) and automatic positive airway pressure (APAP).  

There are also surgical procedures that can be used to remove tissue and widen the airway. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a surgically implantable device placed in the upper chest that monitors a person’s respiratory signals during sleep and stimulates a nerve to send signals to a muscle to stimulate and restore normal breathing.  

Some individuals may need a combination of therapies to successfully treat their sleep apnea. 

Sources: MedlinePlus, National Library of Medicine, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute