Obstructive sleep apnea is more common than some realize. In fact, many people who have this medical condition don’t even know it.
There are a few different kinds of sleep apnea. But obstructive sleep apnea (or OSA) is the most common.
Read on to find out more about obstructive sleep apnea, including what causes it, and how you can figure out whether or not you have it.
You will also find information on the most common and effective treatments for OSA, and what lifestyle changes can help with this sleep disorder find some relief.
What is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?
Someone with sleep apnea will stop breathing for short periods of time while they sleep. Periods during which a person stops breathing are called apnea, or apneic episodes.
Some people with sleep apnea don’t stop breathing entirely. Instead, there are periods when their breathing is shallow.
There are many things that can cause apneic episodes. If someone has obstructive sleep apnea, it means the upper airway is being blocked (or obstructed), either partially or completely.
What causes obstructive sleep apnea?
As you sleep, the muscles in your body relax. That includes the muscles in your throat and upper airway. And, for those with OSA, the throat muscles can relax a little too much.
Excessively relaxed throat muscles can result in a narrowed or obstructed airway. When the airway is too narrow, your breathing can become shallow, and you won’t be able to get enough air. And if the airway is completely obstructed, you won’t be able to breathe at all.
The good news is that, if you stop breathing while you sleep, your brain will register it and respond by waking you up. Once awake, you will be able to breathe normally again.
Someone with OSA can wake up several times a night. In fact, some sufferers wake up 10, 20, or even 30 times in a single hour. And that pattern can continue throughout the night.
You’d think someone would know if there sleep was disrupted that often. But OSA sufferers often wake up for such a short period of time that they don’t remember waking up at all. As soon as they can breathe again they go back to sleep, and the incident is forgotten.
But, forgotten or not, waking up so often has a definite effect. Most people with obstructive sleep apnea don’t get the deep, restorative sleep they truly need to function at their best.
Does sleep apnea ever go away on its own?
If you suspect that you have obstructive sleep apnea, don’t wait for it to go away on its own. Instead, you should see a doctor. The longer OSA goes untreated, the more of a negative impact it can have on your health and quality of life.
A doctor can determine whether or not you have obstructive sleep apnea. And, if you are diagnosed with OSA, they can help you find a treatment to manage your condition.
There are many treatments available for obstructive sleep apnea sufferers. The one that works best for you will depend on the severity of your condition. If your OSA is mild, an oral device could be all you need. Many sleep apnea sufferers find relief via positive airway pressure devices. And, for severe cases of OSA, a doctor might recommend surgery.
What Are the Warning Signs of Obstructive Sleep Apnea?
Do you have obstructive sleep apnea?
Here are some common symptoms and side effects of OSA.
- Snoring, especially if it’s loud and severe.
- Night sweats.
- Nighttime restlessness.
- Waking up abruptly, sometimes with a gasp, snort, or jerk.
- Waking up choking.
- Frequently waking up with a dry mouth, sore throat, or headache.
- Daytime sleepiness.
- General fatigue.
- Difficulty concentrating throughout the day.
- Mood swings.
- Memory problems.
- Feelings of depression or irritability.
- High blood pressure
- A decrease in libido.
- Edema, or leg swelling
If you suspect your have OSA, ask someone who has watched you sleep (like your partner) if you’ve ever stopped breathing, even for just a second.
If you snore, ask if your snoring has ever been interrupted by moments of abrupt silence. That could be a sign that you stopped breathing for a brief period of time.
How can I tell if my child has obstructive sleep apnea?
Adults aren’t the only ones who can have sleep disorder. Children can develop OSA too.
If you think your child might have OSA, here are some things to look out for.
- Drooling during sleep.
- Waking up choking.
- Excessive night sweats.
- Teeth grinding.
- Nighttime restlessness.
- Learning problems and poor school performance.
- Behavioral problems and hyperactivity.
- Sluggishness or listlessness.
- Daytime sleepiness.
- Unusual sleep positions, like sleeping on their hands and knees, or sleeping with their necks fully extended.
If a child stops breathing for short periods of time while sleeping, that’s a pretty clear indication that they could have sleep apnea, and need to see a doctor.
What Can Happen If Sleep Apnea Goes Untreated?
If left untreated, obstructive sleep apnea can affect your life, and your health, in many negative ways.
Not only can OSA itself negatively impact your health, it can worsen existing conditions. For example, if someone suffers from depression, sleep apnea can make that condition even worse.
Here are just a few of the complications that go hand in hand with obstructive sleep apnea.
Feeling fatigued or sleepy during the day.
People with obstructive sleep apnea wake up so often that they don’t always reach the deep levels of sleep needed to be fully rested. As a result, they often feel drowsy and fatigued during their waking hours.
Children with OSA might get bad grades because they’re too tired to concentrate in school. They might also have behavioral problems, like getting into fights, or being disrespectful towards the teacher.
As for adults, not getting enough sleep can leave them feeling cranky and irritable throughout the day. They might find it difficult to concentrate at work, and be more prone to making mistakes and having accidents.
Extreme sleepiness can even make someone fall asleep while driving. In fact, daytime drowsiness is one of the leading causes of vehicular accidents.
Even if you don’t think you have OSA, you should see a doctor if you’re experiencing daytime drowsiness.
Experiencing problems after surgery.
Medications like general anesthetics, narcotic analgesics and sedatives cause the muscles of the upper airway to relax, which is one of the major causes of obstructive sleep apnea. And if you’re sedated during a major surgery, your sleep apnea symptoms might get worse after your operation.
If you’re about to have surgery, and you suspect you have OSA, tell your doctor.
Can obstructive sleep apnea be fatal?
Obstructive sleep apnea can cause or contribute to cardiovascular problems.
If you stop breathing while you sleep, it can cause a sudden drop in your blood oxygen levels. This increases blood pressure, and can put a strain on the cardiovascular system. Not surprisingly, many people with OSA also suffer from hypertension (high blood pressure).
Those with high blood pressure are at greater risk of heart disease. And people with severe OSA are at greater risk for heart attack and stroke.
OSA can cause abnormal heart rhythms (or arrhythmias), which can also lower blood oxygen levels. If someone has heart disease, repeated drops in blood oxygen levels can result in a cardiac event, and possible death.
If it goes untreated, sleep apnea can also contribute to other, potentially life threatening conditions, like diabetes.
What Increases Your Chances of Developing Obstructive Sleep Apnea?
There’s really no way to predict who will and who won’t develop obstructive sleep apnea. But there are factors that could put some at greater risk than others.
Here are some of the most common risk factors related to obstructive sleep apnea.
You don’t have to be overweight to have obstructive sleep apnea. But about half of the people with OSA are.
Excess weight can affect your overall health, and make any medical condition (including sleep apnea) worse. And, in OSA sufferers who are overweight, fat deposits around the upper airway can obstruct nighttime breathing even more.
Having a narrow airway.
Anything that makes your upper airway more narrow puts you at risk of developing OSA. Some things that could cause your airway to be more narrow than the average include:
- Having large tonsils or adenoids.
- Having a large or thick neck.
- Having a naturally large tongue.
- Having a deviated septum.
Some other risks factors.
Other things that can increase your risk of developing obstructive sleep apnea include:
- Hypertension (high blood pressure).
- Heart disease.
- Chronic nasal congestion.
- Your gender. (Men are two times more likely to have OSA than women.)
- Aging. (As you get older, your chances of developing OSA increase.)
- Genetics. (Having relatives with OSA increases your chances of having it too.)
Do You Need To See a Doctor For Obstructive Sleep Apnea?
If you think you have OSA, you should seek medical help. This way you can find out whether or not you suffer from this condition. And, if you do, you can receive the proper treatment.
Along with giving you a physical examination, a doctor will ask questions to help determine how likely it is that you have OSA. They’ll ask about your sleep habits, whether or not you snore, and if anyone in your family has sleep apnea. They’ll also want to know about the quality of your sleep, and how often you experience daytime drowsiness.
The doctor might also want to talk to your partner, as well as others who live in your household. Your partner, for example, can tell your doctor if you’ve ever stopped breathing in your sleep, if you wake up often during the night (even if you don’t remember doing so), or if your snoring is ever interrupted by abrupt silences.
If the doctor thinks you could have sleep apnea, you’ll be scheduled for a sleep study.
While a sleep study can be done in your home, they usually require you to stay overnight at the hospital or in a sleep lab, where you will be monitored throughout the night.
As you sleep, specialists will monitor things like your heart rate, breathing patterns, blood oxygen levels, and muscle activity. They will also know if your breathing stops or is otherwise impaired while you sleep.
If you are diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea, your doctor will help you find an effective treatment to manage your condition.
What Are Some Common Treatments For OSA?
If you have obstructive sleep apnea, the best treatment for you will depend largely on the severity of your condition.
Here are some of the most common and effective treatments for OSA.
Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (or CPAP)
CPAP (which is pronounced see-pap) is a popular treatment for OSA. It’s also considered the most successful treatment for this sleep disorder.
With CPAP, you wear a mask that’s connected to a machine via a tube. The mask fits over your nose or mouth, or possibly both.
The CPAP machine produces air that is delivered directly into your airway. This air pressure holds the airway open, so that it can’t be obstructed. As a result, you won’t stop breathing as you sleep.
CPAP can also keep you from snoring.
While CPAP is extremely effective, it has its downsides. Some people are uncomfortable sleeping in the mask, especially at first. But, over time, most get used to it. And, with experience, CPAP users learn to adjust the mask so that it fits both securely and comfortably.
There are also different types of masks available, including face masks, nasal masks, and nasal pillows. If a CPAP user isn’t comfortable using one type of mask, they can try another.
Some CPAP machines, especially older models, can be loud and cumbersome. But newer models tend to be smaller, and don’t make as much noise.
And CPAP isn’t the only type of positive airway pressure treatment. Some OSA sufferers who can’t adjust to CPAP have more success with bi-level positive airway pressure, or BiPAP.
Oral devices are usually recommended in cases of mild to moderate obstructive sleep apnea.
Mandibular advancement devices (or MADs) move the jaw forward, or advances it. This helps keep the airway open and unobstructed.
Tongue stabilizing devices (or TSDs) stabilize the tongue so that it can’t fall back into the throat and obstruct the airway.
These mouthpieces can also be effective remedies for snoring.
Most doctors will only suggest surgery for obstructive sleep apnea if no other treatment works. Surgery might also be recommended in severe cases of OSA.
Here are some surgeries that might be used to treat obstructive sleep apnea.
- Uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (or UPPP). UPPP is the most common surgery used to treat OSA. During this procedure, soft tissue is removed from the palate and the back of the throat. The adenoids and tonsils might also be removed during the surgery. If the surgery is a success, the result is a wider airway, and less chance of airway obstruction. A UPPP can help to relieve snoring.
- Upper Airway Stimulation. This is a new treatment sometimes recommended for those with moderate to severe OSA. A very small impulse generator is implanted under the skin in the upper chest area. When the device detects certain changes in your breathing patterns, it stimulates nerves that control the muscles in the airway, and keep the airway open. In most cases, the user can control the device using a remote. So they can turn the device on when they are about to go to bed, and turn it off after they get up in the morning.
- Maxillomandibular Advancement. This surgery is usually recommended in severe cases of obstructive sleep apnea. During this procedure, the lower and upper jaw are moved forward, or advanced. This enlarges the space in the airway, and decreases the likelihood that the airway will be obstructed.
- Tracheostomy. This surgery is sometimes used for severe, life-threatening cases of OSA, and is usually considered a last resort. During the procedure, an opening is made in the patient’s windpipe, and a plastic or metal tube is inserted into the opening. Air is delivered to the lungs via the tube, bypassing the throat. This means that even if the air passage is block or obstructed, the patient will still get the air they need.
- Implants. This procedure might work for someone with mild OSA. Small, polyester rods are inserted into the soft palate. These implants make the tissue of the soft palate more stiff, so they are less likely to collapse and obstruct the airway.
Surgery can also be used to remove enlarged tonsils or adenoids, or repair a deviated septum, all of which could cause or contribute to obstructive sleep apnea.
How Can I Fix Sleep Apnea Naturally?
There aren’t really any home remedies that will “cure” sleep apnea. Those who have, or think they have, OSA should seek medical help, rather than trying to treat themselves at home.
But there are some things you can do to help decrease and alleviate your symptoms, especially if your OSA is relatively mild. In fact, doctors usually suggest some, if not all, of these lifestyle changes to their sleep apnea patients.
So, if you suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, here are some of the things you can try to help manage your condition.
About half of the people who have sleep apnea are overweight. And, for some, being overweight does make their symptoms worse.
Can sleep apnea go away if you lose weight?
Well, keep in mind that there are slender people with OSA too. However, if you are overweight, losing some excess pounds could definitely help to improve your condition. In fact, in many cases, just losing a little weight could make a huge difference in the frequency and severity of your OSA symptoms. And the more weight you lose, the less severe your OSA could be.
Use alcohol in moderation.
Obstructive sleep apnea is what happens when the muscles in the throat or upper airway relax enough to obstruct, or block, the upper airway.
Among other things, alcohol causes the throat muscles to relax. If you drink alcohol too close to your bedtime, it will make those muscles relax even more than they normally do when you sleep. And this will increase the chances that your breathing will be obstructed.
If you have OSA, you should drink in moderation. You should also stop drinking several hours before you intend to go to bed.
Restrict use of certain medications.
Like alcohol, there are medications that could cause your throat muscles to relax. Some of these include sedatives, sleeping pills, and tranquilizers. So, for example, if you take a sleeping pill to help you sleep at night, that could increase the chances that your breathing will be obstructed while you sleep.
Before taking such medications, consult your doctor. And if a doctor is about to give you a prescription, let him or her know if you suspect you have OSA.
Change your sleeping position.
If you have obstructive sleep apnea, sleeping on your back could aggravate your condition.
When you sleep on your back, gravity can cause your tongue and soft palate to fall back into the airway and obstruct your breathing.
So if you usually sleep on your back, try sleeping on your side or stomach instead.
Treat nasal congestion.
If you have OSA, sleeping with a stuffy nose can also aggravate your condition.
If nighttime nasal congestion is a problem for you, ask your doctor to give you a prescription for an antihistamine or nasal decongestant.
Take care when using over the counter nasal decongestants. If you use them too often or for too long they can have a rebound effect, and your nasal congestion can be even worse than it was before.
A saline nasal spray can help to open up your nasal passages without the risk of a rebound effect.
Improve your overall health.
If you have obstructive sleep apnea, anything you do to improve your general health will also improve your sleep apnea. This includes exercising regularly, and eating healthier foods. And, if you smoke, quitting will make a world of difference.
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