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The Hidden Dangers of Sleep Apnea

iStock_000026537154_SmallSleep apnea is a common sleep disorder, affecting more than 18 million American adults. Commonly associated with snoring, the disorder is more than an inconvenience. In fact, untreated sleep apnea can lead to serious, even life-threatening health risks.

What is Sleep Apnea?

There are five general types of sleep apnea, all of which pose significant health risks:

  1. Upper airway resistance syndrome (UARS) is a sleep disorder characterized by airway resistance. During sleep, airway muscles become relaxed which reduces the diameter of the airway. UARS is often mistaken for fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome.
  2. Central apnea is caused by an inability to properly pull air in, due to issues with the diaphragm and chest wall. It occurs because the brain doesn’t send correct signals to the muscles that control breathing.
  3. Obstructive apnea is related to an obstruction of the airway that begins in the nose and ends in the lungs. The frequent collapse of the airway during sleep makes it hard to breathe for periods lasting up to 10 seconds. During sleep, the tongue falls back against the soft palate and the soft palate and uvula fall against the back of the throat, causing the airway to close. Breathing typically resumes with a gasp, snort or body jerk that interferes with sound sleep.
  4. Mixed apnea is a combination of obstructive apnea and central apnea.

The Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

There are several indicators of sleep apnea. The most well-known is snoring. While snoring is not always indicative of sleep apnea, it can lead to lack of sleep, which can lead to its own set of health concerns. Along with snoring, sleep apnea is characterized by:

  • Daytime fatigue and drowsiness
  • Waking abruptly, feeling short of breath
  • Awakening with a dry mouth or sore throat
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Daytime irritability
  • Problems paying attention

The Health Risks of Sleep Apnea

Sleep loss causes more than just bad days. In fact, sleep deprivation has been linked to an increased risk of traffic accidents, loss of productivity and a host of unhealthy habits.  Unfortunately, these dangers are just the tip of the iceberg. Sleep apnea is tied to a multitude of severe health concerns, including:

  • Type 2 diabetes. Sleep apnea sufferers are more likely to develop insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes compared to those without a sleep disorder.
  • High blood pressure and cardiovascular problems. When blood oxygen levels suddenly drop, it causes an increase in blood pressure and a strain on the cardiovascular system. According to the Harvard Medical School, men with untreated sleep apnea are three times as likely to suffer from heart disease. Sleep apnea also increases the risk of stroke and can increase the likelihood of deadly consequences for those dealing with underlying heart disease.
  • Medication and surgery complications. Sleep apnea can impact how a person is affected by certain medications and general anesthesia. Those with breathing problems are more likely to experience complications following surgery and sedation.
  • Liver disease. People with sleep apnea are more likely to show abnormal results on liver function tests and their livers are more prone to show signs of scarring.
  • Asthma.  Sleep apnea can worsen asthma symptoms and interfere with the effectiveness of asthma medications.
  • Nerve disorders. There may be an association between seizures, epilepsy and sleep apnea, particularly in older adults.
  • High-risk pregnancy. Sleep apnea increases the risk of pregnancy complications, including gestational diabetes and pre-eclampsia.
  • Gout. A recent British study reported that people with sleep apnea were about fifty percent more likely to develop gout than those without the disorder.

Also associated with sleep apnea are:

  • Memory loss
  • The weakening of immune systems
  • Accelerated tumor growth
  • Headaches

The Psychological Effects of Sleep Apnea

Beyond general health concerns, sleep apnea is associated with some severe psychological effects.

Depression. The CDC reports an increased likelihood of depression for those with sleep apnea. Treatment of sleep apnea has also been linked, in an Australian study, to the reduction of suicide related thoughts.

Post-traumatic stress disorder. A study of U.S. veterans showed that the risk of sleep apnea increased with the severity of PTSD symptoms. Sleep apnea also increased the likelihood of nightmares.

Women and Sleep Apnea

Women are particularly at risk to the hidden dangers of sleep apnea. One reason for this phenomenon, is that women are more likely than men to have subtle symptoms, which leads to the condition remaining undiagnosed. A UCLA study showed that the body’s normal autonomic responses that control blood pressure are not as strong in people with sleep apnea and even less so in women with the disorder.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Sleep Apnea

It is imperative for those who suspect that they have sleep apnea, or any sleep disorder, to receive proper diagnosis and treatment. After consulting with a doctor, many undergo a sleep study, also referred to as a polysomnogram or PSG. In the past, these studies required overnight stays in a hospital or sleep lab. Today, the more convenient and less costly home sleep test is available for some patients who meet the eligibility criteria.

Once diagnosed, there are a number of non-invasive treatment options for sleep apnea sufferers. Oral appliances and continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) masks are two popular and commonly used treatments. There are also several in-office procedures that can be used to treat apnea. Certain lifestyle changes are recommended to help lessen the effects, including:

  • Treatment of nasal congestion and allergies
  • Avoiding alcohol and sleep aids
  • Not eating late at night
  • Sleeping on one side
  • Maintaining healthy diet and exercise habits

If you suspect that you are suffering from sleep apnea, it’s time to consult with a board-certified otolaryngologist (ENT doctor). The team at eos sleep is dedicated to improving the lives of people who snore and/or have sleep apnea.

Our doctors provide diagnostic testing for sleep disorders, as well as customized treatment plans. Start by taking our Berlin Scale, to gauge the severity of your symptoms. When you are ready, contact us to schedule an appointment and get back on the road to healthy sleep.

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