What Is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea (AP-ne-ah) is a common disorder in which you have one or more pauses in breathing or shallow breaths while you sleep.
Breathing pauses can last from a few seconds to minutes. They may occur 30 times or more an hour.
Typically, normal breathing then starts again, sometimes with a loud snort or choking sound.
Sleep apnea usually is a chronic (ongoing) condition that disrupts your sleep. When your breathing pauses or becomes shallow, you’ll often move out of deep sleep and into light sleep.
As a result, the quality of your sleep is poor, which makes you tired during the day. Sleep apnea is a leading cause of excessive daytime sleepiness.
Sleep apnea often goes undiagnosed. Doctors usually can’t detect the condition during routine office visits. Also, no blood test can help diagnose the condition.
Most people who have sleep apnea don’t know they have it because it only occurs during sleep. A family member or bed partner might be the first to notice signs of sleep apnea.
The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea. In this condition, the airway collapses or becomes blocked during sleep. This causes shallow breathing or breathing pauses.
When you try to breathe, any air that squeezes past the blockage can cause loud snoring. Obstructive sleep apnea is more common in people who are overweight, but it can affect anyone. For example, small children who have enlarged tonsil tissues in their throats may have obstructive sleep apnea.
Central sleep apnea is a less common type of sleep apnea. This disorder occurs if the area of your brain that controls your breathing doesn’t send the correct signals to your breathing muscles. As a result, you’ll make no effort to breathe for brief periods.
Central sleep apnea can affect anyone. However, it’s more common in people who have certain medical conditions or use certain medicines.
Central sleep apnea can occur with obstructive sleep apnea or alone. Snoring typically doesn’t happen with central sleep apnea.
This article mainly focuses on obstructive sleep apnea.
Untreated sleep apnea can:
- Increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, obesity, and diabetes
- Increase the risk of, or worsen, heart failure
- Make arrhythmias (ah-RITH-me-ahs), or irregular heartbeats, more likely
- Increase the chance of having work-related or driving accidents
Sleep apnea is a chronic condition that requires long-term management. Lifestyle changes, mouthpieces, surgery, and breathing devices can successfully treat sleep apnea in many people.
Number of sleep disorder tests carried out by the NHS doubles in ten years
- A total of 147,610 sleep disorder tests were carried out last year by the NHS
- In 2007 to 2008, just 69,919 sleep disorder tests were conducted by doctors
- Tests are to identify sleep apnea, a disorder that stops sleepers from breathing
- Disorder affects 1.5 million people in the UK and many more remain undiagnosed
The number of tests to diagnose people with sleep disorders has doubled in the last ten years, statistics have revealed.
A total of 147,610 sleep disorder tests were carried out in England last year, while only 69,919 exams were carried out in 2007 to 2008.
Sleep disorder tests are designed to diagnose sleep apnea, a condition that causes sufferers to stop breathing in bed.
Experts said the rise may be down to more awareness about the serious health risks of sleep apnea, which include increased chances of heart disease and stroke.
The condition affects around 1.5 million people in the UK, but doctors warn many more people have not been formally diagnosed.
The number of tests to diagnose people with sleep disorders has doubled in the last ten years
Rise in sleep disorders
In the US, sleep apnea affects 18 million people, or one in 15 Americans, according to the American Sleep Association.
An analysis of NHS data carried out by the BBC has revealed that the number of sleeping disorder tests has risen every year for the last decade.
Doctors said the rise in tests could be down to greater public awareness about the serious health consequences of the condition.
‘Sleep apnea is a serious condition which can lead to other problems such as high blood pressure, which in turn can lead to strokes and heart attacks,’ Dr Stephen Bianchi from Sheffield’s Northern General Hospital, told the BBC.
Dr Bianchi said that although test rates are on the rise, most people with the condition have not yet been diagnosed.
‘We think about two per cent of females, and four per cent of males in the UK have significant sleep apnea,’ Dr Bianchi said.
Snoring is a symptom of sleep apnea, but not all people that snore will have the condition
‘However, we suspect that 80 per cent of those with the condition are unaware they have it.’
Sleep anoea sufferers are often tested for neurological sleep disorders such as insomnia and rapid eye movement (REM) disorder.
People who suffer from REM disorder act out their dreams and are known for shouting, screaming, punching and kicking while asleep.
Serious cases of REM disorder can be treated with anti-seizure drugs and, in rare cases, antidepressants.
While a diagnosis of sleep apnea can be scary, it is a treatable condition. In fact, there are many things you can do on your own to help, particularly for mild to moderate sleep apnea.
Home remedies and lifestyle modifications can go a long way in reducing sleep apnea symptoms. However, they should not replace medical evaluation and treatment.
Lifestyle changes to reduce sleep apnea symptoms
People who are overweight have extra tissue in the back of their throat, which can fall down over the airway and block the flow of air into the lungs while they sleep.
Even a small amount of weight loss can open up your throat and improve sleep apnea symptoms.
Smoking contributes to sleep apnea by increasing inflammation and fluid retention in your throat and upper airway.
Avoid alcohol, sleeping pills, and sedatives, especially before bedtime, because they relax the muscles in the throat and interfere with breathing.
As well as helping you lose weight, regular exercise can have a major effect on the duration and quality of sleep.
Aerobic and resistance training can help reduce sleep apnea symptoms, while yoga is also good for strengthening the muscles in your airways and improving breathing.
Avoid caffeine and heavy meals within two hours of going to bed.
Maintain regular sleep hours
Sticking to a steady sleep schedule will help you relax and sleep better. Sleep apnea episodes decrease when you get plenty of sleep.
Bedtime tips for preventing sleep apnea
Sleep on your side
Avoid sleeping on your back which makes it more likely for your tongue and soft tissues to obstruct your airway. Some people only experience sleep apnea when sleeping on their back.
The tennis ball trick
To keep yourself from rolling onto your back while you sleep, sew a tennis ball into a pocket on the back of your pajama top. Or wedge a pillow stuffed with tennis balls behind your back.
Prop your head up
Elevate the head of your bed by four to six inches, or elevate your body from the waist up by using a foam wedge or special cervical pillow.
Open your nasal passages
At night by using a nasal dilator, saline spray, breathing strips, or a nasal irrigation system (neti pot).
Tighten the muscles that keep the mouth closed
Try chewing gum or holding a pen between your teeth for about 10 minutes before bedtime, or until your jaw starts to ache.
Singing can increase muscle control in the throat and soft palate, reducing snoring and sleep apnea caused by lax muscles.
Playing the didgeridoo (native Australian wind instrument) can strengthen the soft palate and throat, reducing daytime sleepiness and snoring in people with moderate sleep apnea.
Throat and tongue exercises may reduce the severity of sleep apnea by strengthening the muscles in the airway, making them less likely to collapse. It may take several weeks before you start to notice the benefits.
Try these exercises:
- Press your tongue flat against the floor of your mouth and brush top and sides with a toothbrush. Repeat brushing movement five times, three times a day.
- Press the length of your tongue to the roof of your mouth and hold for three minutes a day.
- Place a finger into one side of your mouth. Hold the finger against your cheek while pulling the cheek muscle in at same time. Repeat 10 times, rest, and then alternate sides. Repeat this sequence three times.
- Purse your lips as if to kiss. Hold your lips tightly together and move them up and to the right, then up and to the left 10 times. Repeat this sequence three times.
- Place your lips on a balloon. Take a deep breath through your nose then blow out through your mouth to inflate the balloon as much as possible. Repeat five times without removing balloon from your mouth.
- Gargle with water for five minutes, twice a day.
- Lightly hold your tongue between your teeth. Swallow five times. Repeat this five times a day.
Sleep apnea treatment options
If your sleep apnea is moderate to severe, or you’ve tried self-help strategies and lifestyle changes without success, a sleep doctor may help you find an effective treatment.
Treatment for sleep apnea has come a long way in recent times, so even if you were unhappy with sleep apnea treatment in the past, you may now find something that works for you.
Treatments for central and complex sleep apnea usually include treating any underlying medical condition causing the apnea, such as a heart or neuromuscular disorder, and using supplemental oxygen and breathing devices while you sleep.
Treatment options for obstructive sleep apnea include:
- Other breathing devices
- Dental devices
*Medications are only available to treat the sleepiness associated with sleep apnea, not the sleep apnea itself.