According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleep apnea affects more than eighteen million Americans. Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA), which is a condition characterized by pauses in breathing while you sleep, usually occurs when the soft tissue in the rear of the throat collapses and the airway is blocked. Throughout the night, as an individual struggles to breathe, they repeatedly leave deep sleep and partially awaken as they gasp for air. When morning comes, however, they are unaware of their sleep disturbance.
People with OSA usually snore loudly; although not everyone who snores has sleep apnea. The risk factors for the disorder include being overweight, male, and more than 40 years of age; but the disorder can affect anyone (even small children whose breathing may be obstructed by enlarged tonsils). Unfortunately, most sufferers are unaware that they have the disorder, so it often remains undiagnosed. But ignorance is not bliss.
Untreated obstructive sleep apnea can cause a host of serious medical problems including chronic tiredness, headaches, memory lapses, irritability, weight gain, depression, and increased joint and muscle pain. It also places sufferers at a higher risk of developing heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure.
Finally, excessive sleepiness has public safety consequences: The American Automobile Association (AAA) estimates that one out of every six (16.5%) deadly traffic accidents, and one out of eight (12.5%) crashes requiring hospitalization of car drivers or passengers is due to drowsy driving.
Watch a 90-second, animated video describing sleep apnea from NIH.
Although there is no cure for sleep apnea, if you suspect you may have it here are 3 things to consider doing now:
- Perform a risk assessment.The first step in getting a more restful sleep is determining if you have a sleep disorder. The Epworth Sleepiness Scale asks Eight Questions to assess your risk – if your score is equal to or higher than 10, you are at a high risk for sleep apnea and should consult your doctor.
- Examine your lifestyle factors.Weight loss and/or maintaining a healthy weight, eliminating alcohol, and smoking cessation have all been shown to improve sleep. A one-step-at-a-time approach for any major lifestyle modifications will help you maintain these healthier practices for life.
- Consider trying a mouthpiece. If you have moderate-to-severe sleep apnea, a CPAP machine may be recommended by your physician. The machine uses a mask that fits over the mouth and nose, or just the nose, and gently blows air into the throat. The pressure from the air helps keep the airway open during sleep, minimizing disturbances due to sleep apnea.
For more information about sleep apnea, please visit the National Institute of Neurological Disorders & Stroke website.