The worst thing that can happen to you during your sleep is not nightmares, sleep paralysis or even sleepwalking. But, having issues breathing or irregular breathing when you’re not conscious is as dangerous as it can get. Sleep Apnea is the condition when your breathing stops/pauses for ten seconds or more because of one factor or another. The main reason for sleep apnea is when your tongue or throat muscles relax so much during the sleep that they restrict airflow. It can lead to a sudden pause in your breathing cycle leading to waking you up and feeling suffocated. Also known as obstructive sleep apnea, this is usually not deadly, but people with severe sleep apnea are prone to premature death.
Sleep Apnea Symptoms and Causes:
Since you’re bound to not notice the symptoms if you have sleep apnea until it becomes, it is important that you are aware. This is because depending upon its severity, it can be lethal or lead to other problems. If an episode (event of breath intake stopping as a result of muscle relaxation) lasts more than 10 seconds, it can lead to issues in blood oxygenation. Here are the factors and symptoms to be aware of regarding sleep apnea:
Contributing Factors: There are more than one common cause of sleep apnea. The most widely known cause is your throat muscles relaxing leading to breath intake issues. However, there are different kinds of sleep apnea and the factors that lead to each of them:
- Obstructive sleep apnea: The most common kind of sleep apnea that is caused by relaxed tongue muscles or others. OSA or Obstructive sleep apnea is usually a cause of concern only for people with obesity, genetic risk, as well as geolocation to certain races. Moreover, it is also a common issue for people that have larger than average neck diameter as well as obesity issues. High BMI, allergies, nasal issues among other issues are some of the side factors to consider for your OSA diagnosis as well.
- Central sleep apnea: Central sleep apnea is a much more serious and internal form of sleep apnea. It arises as a result of your brain not sending properly times signals to your respiratory system. This is a rarely occurring condition and doesn’t happen as a result of lifestyle factors and body anomalies like in OSA. The main cause for central sleep apnea can be something serious such as a stroke, heart failure, or other morbid conditions that affect the brain’s functioning.
- Complex sleep apnea: This is a rare and sophisticate condition that is a result of severe damage to the heart or brain. Complex sleep apnea is a medical condition that may be similar to OSA or central sleep apnea, but harsher, and may be a combination of the two as well. Moreover, complex sleep apnea doesn’t have a single cause or triggering event like the above two conditions. However, narcotics, and other medicines may cause a person to develop complex sleep apnea.
Diagnosing Sleep Apnea:
Sleep apnea is a condition that may or may not require a clinical diagnosis, and being aware is beneficial for long term health. You can usually tell if you have sleep apnea due to living conditions and irregular sleep or waking up in the middle of the night suffocated. You can measure your sleep apnea severity with the help of apnea-hypopnea index or AHI. It is best to get a medical diagnosis for getting an accurate measurement of your AHI severity. Here are the ways AHI can help diagnose your apnea:
- If you have AHI between 5 and 14.9, you have mild sleep apnea and most likely have OSA.
- If you have AHI between 15 and 29.9, you have moderate sleep apnea.
- An AHI above 30 indicates severe sleep apnea.
However, irrespective of mild, moderate or severe, your sleep apnea index or AHI only measures the severity. It doesn’t mean that higher your AHI, the worse your condition- central or complex sleep apnea. They are rare diagnoses, and AHI is a way of measuring sleep apnea episodes.
Symptoms of Sleep Apnea:
While you can usually tell your main issues when not sure of a sleep apnea diagnosis, but there are other symptoms to watch out for too. Sleep apnea is a condition which affects your sleep, therefore eventually every aspect of your life. So, it is important to be aware to prevent or cure it using CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) device. Moreover, if not prevented or checked in time, sleep apnea can lead to some other serious complications as well. Here are some symptoms to look out for as a result of sleep apnea affecting your sleep:
- Irregular Sleep: Sleep apnea is highly disruptive of a good sleep and affects your health as well as energy. It can not only make you lethargic and develop a sleep debt over time, but also make you develop other unhealthy habits and conditions. During sleep, it can lead to choking, snoring, gasping for air followed by a sudden waking up jolt. Additionally, it can lead to uneasy sleep that can even lead to death in severe sleep apnea cases. Sleep apnea also wakes you up several times leading to restless sleep, and even lead to headaches and lethargy on waking up.
- Waking problems: As it leads to irregular sleep that doesn’t let you complete your healthy REM cycles; sleep apnea leads to issues affecting your lifestyle too. In addition to tiredness, it can give you headaches, daytime dizziness and headaches, as well as depression, anxiety and irritation. Overall, it can lead to very serious problems regarding your mental and physical health.
- Effect on body: Problematic as it may be, sleep apnea can also lead to internal problems which further intensify the severity of this condition. It can lead to issues like high blood pressure as a result of low oxygen, slower reaction times as well as issues with heart rate, breathing, and bodily movements. All this is not only an effect of your irregular sleep, but also the effect less air has on every system of your body. Combined with other conditions it can lead to comorbidities taking a heavy toll on your body.
Severe Complications: Along with other comorbidities, sleep apnea can not only affect your health, but also lead to permanent organ damage. This is because it leads to less oxygen depending on the AHI level and episodes, as well as organ damage. If your organs face severe oxygen depletion it can lead to diseases and damage in blood circulation, lungs, eyes, and even permanent brain damage. Here are some severe complications that sleep apnea can lead to:
- High blood pressure
- Slow reaction times
- Depression, anxiety as well as memory loss or stroke. It can further cause central sleep apnea in rare cases as a result. Moreover, as a result of less oxygen reaching your organs and brain, it can lead to permanent reduction of your brain size. This of course leads to memory loss, impairments as well as other brain diseases.
- In obese people, it can put even more pressure and strain on blood vessels and arteries as well as lead to cardiovascular issues.
- Sleep apnea can not only lead to blood cancers, but also aggravate or trigger pre-existing cancer conditions.
Preventing and curing sleep apnea:
While there is no such “cure” to get rid of sleep apnea completely with medicines, you can go for surgery or external devices that control sleep apnea. The CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine is the main and only relief from sleep apnea. The device lets in oxygen into your respiratory system and you put in the tube in your mouth or nose. Moreover, the CPAP is the only device that can solve or relieve you of sleep apnea conditions. But at the same time, it can also be a major discomfort and make the problem worse as a result in some cases. In such a case you would need surgery to correct the issue rather than rely on external devices.
You can carry CPAP machines when traveling or even rely on them to humidify your airflow. They can act as comforting systems that let you sleep soundly, and you can also make use of other oral devices. Usually, they’re correctional devices to correct throat or jaw alignment as well as provide additional support and intake of air during sleep. These devices fit inside your mouth and can lead to slight discomfort at the beginning and ultimately correct anatomical issues and conditions leading to sleep apnea.
While you can make sure to keep and maintain a healthy lifestyle to prevent sleep apnea, in severe or rare cases like central or complex apnea, surgery remains the only option. You may need to get nasal surgery to correct nose and throat alignment and use artificial straightening of your throat and septum. The other case is jaw surgery which you may need in cases of anatomical causes of sleep apnea like jaw alignment and lengthening.
The UPPP surgery is the best-case scenario to resolve excess tissue which leads to OSA. UPPP (Uvulopalatopharyngoplasty) can help people with mild or moderate sleep apnea in getting rid of OSA and live a life without external devices like CPAP. There are other reasons for sleep apnea as well that might require surgery or to prevent comorbidities as a result of severe sleep apnea.
Sleep Apnea prevention and temporary relief exercises:
Sleep apnea can get more severe with age due to issues like obesity, sedentary lifestyle, sleeping problems or anatomy issues. Sleep apnea is not commonly present in children, but can occur in people of all ages. In children, the main cause of sleep apnea is obesity and neck circumference. So, to prevent sleep apnea, it is best to be active and stay away from obesity. But in case of OSA and mild sleep apnea, it is still manageable and reversible, although not guaranteed.
Here are some exercises to try to manage OSA for temporary relief:
- Head movement: To get some temporary relief, you can try to move your end up and down and ensure a generally elevated yet comfortable sleeping pillow. An orthopedic pillow can be of great help as it relieves pressure as well as helps in keeping your neck and throat level enough to allow proper airflow.
- Mouth exercises: If you feel extreme discomfort during an apnea episode, and know the source to be the mouth, tighten your mouth exercises. A simple exercise can be clenching your jaw, or chewing gum or using some strain and relax exercises to put your mouth at easy to prevent another episode.
- Nose: As OSA is a throat issue more commonly before anything else, using nasal sprays or forced breathing to keep your nostrils clean can be of great help. Nasal strips, sprays or CPAP use is the main and only common way to get relief after an episode.
- Sleeping position: Sleeping position is just as important as everything else in preventing sleep apnea. To prevent episodes from reoccurring frequently, try developing the habit to sleep on your back. If you have a partner, make sure they put you on the back position for some weeks if you tend to twist and turn during your sleep. It might be a short time inconvenience, but pays off in the long term.
Sleep apnea is a silent condition that comes with obesity or other much more severe issues. To prevent it, you can rely on pillows and a good quality mattress to keep your neck and back in alignment. It is a manageable and reversible condition that can be resolved with the proper care, exercise and surgery in severe cases. However, central and complex or even OSA can be a chronic issue that lasts several years. A great way to keep apnea away is to use proper medical guidance and support from family, friends and your partner.