Managing Sleep Apnea So You Can Catch Your Zzz’s
You’ve seen that situation at least once in a sitcom or movie: a ridiculously loud snorer lies next to their annoyed bed partner who is covering his or her ears with a pillow.
Sure, it’s a good laugh for some, but for others, it’s a nightly reality and one that might indicate a health problem.
“Most everyone snores at one point,” said Noel Tiangco, MD, a critical care pulmonologist and sleep medicine specialist with Avera Medical Group Pulmonary & Sleep Medicine. “But loud, relentless snoring can indicate a condition that adds up."
He said it can jeopardize your health, too.
What Happens in Your Airway at Night
When you sleep, your body relaxes. For some people, the relaxed tissue that makes up the air passages – the muscles of the neck, as well as your tongue – become loose and floppy. It can sag and close off the airway almost completely. The closure interferes with breathing, and the body feels that it cannot bring in air. If it happens to you, you’ll feel choking and gasping sensations.
You might even wake up.
This condition is known as obstructive sleep apnea. It happens to some people a few times a night or several times an hour. But in some, it happens more than a hundred times an hour and disrupts sleep.
“In a room with 100 men in North America, 15 to 30 of them have this condition,” Tiangco said. “Some people might stop breathing a few times an hour and feel terrible. Others might have it happen dozens of times and report it as no big deal.”
Obstructive sleep apnea can cause sleepiness during the day. It can also result in headaches and difficulty concentrating. But obstructive sleep apnea can contribute to serious health problems like high blood pressure, stroke, depression and others.
Apnea 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 Helps You Sleep
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. It’s like a splint that holds your 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,” he said. “The CPAP is considered the gold standard in treatment for obstructive sleep apnea.”
In rare cases, surgery may be an option for patients with sleep apnea. One device, known as Inspire, is surgically placed in the throat and uses impulses to ensure the airway tissue remains clear and the airway is free.
The difference in sleep is something that not only helps the patient – it can help their bed partner, too.
“Opening your airway through the use of a CPAP may be your path toward a better night’s sleep,” said Tiangco. “It can also help your bedmate sleep better too, knowing your breathing is continuing and your snoring has gone away.”
Ask your primary care provider about a sleep medicine referral.