Managing Sleep Apnea So You Can Catch Your Zzz’s
You’ve seen that situation at least once in a sitcom: a ridiculously loud snorer and the annoyed spouse covering his or her ears with a pillow. Sure, it’s a good laugh for some, but for others, it’s a nightly reality!
“Most everyone snores at one point,” said Noel Tiangco, MD, specialist in sleep medicine and pulmonology at Avera Medical Group Pulmonary & Sleep Medicine. “But loud, relentless snoring may be an indication that something worse is going on.”
When you sleep, your body relaxes, and in some people the air passages become very floppy and close up. In some people, these passages are already tight and narrow to begin with. This interferes with breathing and the body feels that it can't get air in, causing you to choke and gasp and sometimes wake up. This can happen several times an hour (in some, over a hundred times an hour!), disrupting sleep. This condition is known as obstructive sleep apnea.
Obstructive sleep apnea can cause sleepiness during the day and fatigue. It can also result in headaches and difficulty concentrating. Some individuals may not feel there's anything wrong with their sleep because they've gotten used to their sleep apnea over the years. Importantly, obstructive sleep apnea may also be associated with high blood pressure, stroke, heart problems and other medical conditions.
It Can Affect Anyone
Typically, when we talk about sleep apnea, we associate the disorder with overweight, middle-aged individuals. Tiangco says that’s not always the case.
“Sleep apnea can affect anyone. While it’s more common in people who are overweight, folks in a healthy weight range can have sleep apnea, too,” said Tiangco. “In fact, we see people who have lost several pounds in order to alleviate their sleep apnea, only to continue struggling with it!”
Unfortunately, it’s not just adults as sleep apnea has been found in children as well. The side effects are much the same — exhaustion, poor performance in school, etc. And kids should not have to experience childhood in a sleepy autopilot!
Sleep apnea is diagnosed through a sleep study. During the overnight stay in a sleep laboratory, a variety of information from your body is collected, including your breathing, heartbeat, brainwaves and leg movements. Sometimes patients can take a sleep study machine home and conduct a more basic kind of sleep study from the comforts of their very own bed; ask your doctor about your options.
Getting Treatment that Works
The most common treatment for sleep apnea is using a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine. A mask — much like the one you wear when receiving oxygen at the dentist — covers your nose and provides a constant stream of air pressure through your nostrils, splinting the airway open so you can breathe.
“As you sleep, your CPAP machine collects data on your breathing, which allows your doctor to see whether or not your sleep apnea is being effectively treated with the machine’s use,” added Tiangco.
In rare cases, surgery may be an option for patients with sleep apnea. Sometimes an oral appliance may also be helpful.
“If you snore and happen to be tired during the day, opening your airway through the use of a CPAP may be your path toward a better night’s sleep,” said Tiangco, “for you and your partner.”