Sleep apnea is a common condition that is thought to affect about 22 million Americans. But just because it is so common does not mean it’s normal. You may be wondering, “is sleep apnea dangerous?” Let’s learn more about this sleep disorder and how you can treat it.
What is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a condition that’s characterized by pauses in breathing while you sleep. These pauses can last for several seconds to even minutes at a time.
Normally when we sleep air flows smoothly into the nose, through the airway, and into the lungs. But with sleep apnea, the airflow is obstructed, most commonly by the relaxation of tissues in the neck and upper airway.
When we sleep, the tissues in our neck and throat relax. In some people, the relaxation of these tissues, along with the tongue falling back into the airway, can obstruct natural airflow, causing pauses in breathing. This is the most common cause of sleep apnea and is known as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).
Other than OSA, there is another less common type of sleep apnea known as central sleep apnea. This isn’t caused by obstruction of the airway but happens because the brain isn’t sending messages to your body to breathe. In other words, your body doesn’t even try to breathe because the brain isn’t signaling it to.
If left untreated, sleep apnea can be dangerous to your health. Sleep apnea interferes with the intake of oxygen to your body and causes your heart to work even harder. Then when you do wake up, especially if it’s several times a night, your body gets stressed as certain hormones become unbalanced. This can cause high blood pressure, among other problems.
In addition to high blood pressure (hypertension), sleep apnea can also cause heart disease, insulin resistance (which can lead to type 2 diabetes), decreased cognitive function, as well as a reduction in the quality of life. Also, because of fatigue and the decline in cognitive function, someone with sleep apnea is at a higher risk of motor vehicle accidents. 
Because sleep apnea happens during sleep, many people don’t even know they have it. Here are some signs you can look for to see if you might have sleep apnea:
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Often, it’s the bed partner that notices the signs of sleep apnea. As much as you may want to ignore what your partner is telling you, it’s best to listen to them and get help from your doctor who can properly diagnose you. Your health is depending on it.
The most common way to diagnose sleep apnea (as well as other sleep conditions) is by having a sleep test known as polysomnography. These tests are usually performed overnight at a sleep center. During the sleep test, you will be hooked up to wires and monitored as you sleep. Sleep technicians will record things like your breathing, oxygen levels, body movements, heart rate, and brain waves.
To diagnose sleep apnea specifically, technicians look at variables known as apnea-hypopnea index (AHI) or respiratory disturbance index (RDI). This basically means that they look at the number of abnormal respiratory events during each hour of sleep, mainly the absence of airflow and reductions in respiratory effort. 
Polysomnography done in sleep centers can be expensive and time-consuming. Because of this, home sleep studies are now becoming more common as technology is allowing for devices that measure these same variables at home.
Even though having sleep apnea can do harm to your health, there is good news. Sleep apnea is treatable and in many cases, can even be cured.
Here are some common ways to treat or even reverse OSA:
Since central sleep apnea is not caused by an obstruction of the airway, different treatment may be needed, although CPAP is sometimes used. Central sleep apnea may be caused from an underlying medical condition, including some neurological diseases or damage done to the brainstem. Treating the medical condition itself may also treat the central sleep apnea.
If you think you may have sleep apnea, the first thing you need to do is talk with your medical provider for a proper diagnosis. Don’t ignore the signs. Sleep apnea can be dangerous if left untreated.
© 2021 American Sleep Association.