Sleep apnea is a common, yet serious sleep disorder that affects millions of people worldwide. It occurs when a person's breathing is repeatedly interrupted during sleep, leading to decreased oxygen levels in the blood and disrupted sleep patterns. As a neurologist, I have seen firsthand the impact that sleep apnea can have on a person's mental health, cognition, and energy levels. That is why a timely diagnosis and treatment is so important. Most people think that sleep disorders, including OSA, are related to breathing or lung problems. They are not. Most sleep disorders, including sleep apnea, are regulated by the brain. Aside from patient wellbeing, untreated sleep apnea are a risk for strokes and dementia.
Types of Sleep Apnea
There are three types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea, and complex sleep apnea syndrome.
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common type and occurs when the muscles in the back of the throat fail to keep the airway open during sleep. This results in repeated breathing pauses, called apneas, which can last for several seconds and occur numerous times per hour.
Central sleep apnea (CSA) occurs when the brain fails to send the appropriate signals to the muscles that control breathing during sleep. This can result in brief pauses in breathing, called hypopneas, or complete cessation of breathing, called apneas.
Complex sleep apnea syndrome (CompSA) is a combination of both OSA and CSA and can be challenging to treat.
Symptoms of Sleep Apnea
The symptoms of sleep apnea can vary widely depending on the severity of the condition. Some common symptoms include:
- Loud snoring
- Gasping or choking during sleep
- Restless sleep
- Daytime sleepiness
- Morning headache
- Poor concentration and memory
- Irritability and mood changes
- High blood pressure
- Risk of heart disease and stroke
Diagnosis of Sleep Apnea
If you suspect that you have sleep apnea, it is important to seek medical advice from a healthcare professional. A diagnosis of sleep apnea is typically made after a sleep study, which measures your breathing, heart rate, and other vital signs during sleep. With home sleep testing, you don't even need to sleep in the lab to get a diagnosis anymore.
Treatment of Sleep Apnea
The treatment of sleep apnea depends on the type and severity of the condition. In general, treatment options for sleep apnea fall into three categories: lifestyle changes, medical devices, and surgery.
The first line of treatment for mild to moderate sleep apnea often involves lifestyle changes, including weight loss, regular exercise, avoiding alcohol and sedatives before bedtime, and sleeping on your side instead of your back. These changes can often improve symptoms and reduce the severity of sleep apnea.
Medical devices, such as continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines, are often used to treat moderate to severe sleep apnea. CPAP machines deliver a continuous flow of air through a mask worn over the nose and mouth, keeping the airway open during sleep.
Other medical devices used to treat sleep apnea include oral appliances, which are custom-made devices worn in the mouth to help keep the airway open, and positional therapy devices, which encourage the patient to sleep on their side.
Surgery is often reserved for severe cases of sleep apnea that do not respond to other treatments. Surgical options include uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP), which removes excess tissue from the throat, and maxillomandibular advancement (MMA), which moves the jaw forward to open the airway.
Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder that can have a significant impact on a person's health and wellbeing. If you suspect that you have sleep apnea, it is important to seek medical advice from a healthcare professional. With proper diagnosis and treatment, the symptoms of sleep apnea can be effectively managed, improving the quality of sleep and overall health.