Obstructive Sleep Apnea Overview
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a sleep disorder caused by a full or partially occluded airway. While you sleep, the soft tissues of your upper airway including the tongue and walls of the throat relax. In people with OSA, when the tissue relaxes, it blocks the airway, which causes temporary pauses in breathing.
The pauses are brief and may only last a few seconds. But they can happen several times an hour. Due to the pauses, your sleep is fragmented. Even if you don’t realize it, you’re having brief awakenings throughout the night.
About 30 million people in the United States have sleep apnea. In some instances, the condition may also go undiagnosed. Someone who has sleep apnea may not recognize their symptoms, especially if they do not have a bedmate.
Symptoms of OSA
OSA symptoms tend to continue until the condition is treated. The severity of symptoms may vary. Obstructive sleep apnea often includes the following symptoms:
- Daytime sleepiness
- Lack of concentration
Sleep Apnea Risk Factors
Anyone can develop sleep apnea. But there are some identified risk factors. For example, being overweight is one of the main risk factors for developing OSA. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, about 50 percent of people with OSA are overweight or obese. Men also tend to have sleep apnea more often than women. Having large tonsils or adenoids is also considered a risk factor.
Health Complications Associated with Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea affects the quality of your sleep. Even if you get eight hours of sleep a night, if it’s not quality sleep, you probably still will not feel refreshed in the morning. That means you’re likely to become sleep deprived.
But sleep apnea does not just leave you with symptoms of sleep deprivation. It is also associated with several health conditions. During the pauses in breathing, the oxygen level in your blood may decrease, and your blood pressure may increase. As time goes on, increased blood pressure may not just occur overnight. It may also develop during your waking hours.
According to the American Heart Association, there is a strong association between sleep apnea and heart disease. People with OSA also have an increased risk of having a heart attack, arrhythmia and stroke.
Sleep apnea is also linked to an increased risk of surgical complications. For example, people with OSA are more likely to have problems breathing and coming out of anesthesia after surgery.
Treatment Options for Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Between the increased risk of serious health problems and poor sleep, people with obstructive sleep apnea should seek treatment. Most people can be successfully treated for sleep apnea with one of the following:
CPAP: Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is often recommended to treat OSA. The idea behind CPAP is simple. It involves using a special machine that delivers pressurized air to your airways with each breath you take. The pressure prevents pauses in breathing by keeping your airway open. CPAP users wear a nasal mask or nasal pillows, which are attached to a small machine.
Dental Devices: A dental appliance may also be an option for people who do not want or cannot tolerate CPAP. Dental appliances are mouthpieces that are worn overnight to keep the airway open. For instance, a mandibular advancement device may be used to push the jaw forward, which opens the upper airway. Another option is a tongue retaining appliance, which prevents the tongue from blocking the airway by holding it forward.
Surgery: Surgery for sleep apnea is usually only recommended if other treatments options have failed. There are a variety of surgical procedures for OSA that may be used. For example, one procedure involves radiofrequency ablation to remove excess tissue from the base of the tongue. Another option is surgery to move the muscles of the tongue forward. Certain procedures may be performed under general anesthesia and the recovery times vary. It’s essential to discuss the benefits, as well as the risks of surgery before deciding what procedure is right for you.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea FAQ’s
If I lose weight will sleep apnea disappear? In some cases, losing weight can decrease symptoms of sleep apnea. Being overweight is a risk factor for sleep apnea. The extra weight may mean more tissue around the back of the throat, which may block the airway during sleep. Losing weight may decrease the constriction of the throat.
Will treating sleep apnea eliminate snoring? Snoring is often a symptom of sleep apnea. In many instances, keeping the airway open with CPAP or a dental device eliminates or reduces snoring. But in addition to OSA, there can also be other causes of snoring, which CPAP may not eliminate. While it’s impossible to say sleep apnea treatment will eliminate snoring in everyone, it usually helps.
Can I change my own CPAP pressure setting? You should not change your CPAP pressure setting without talking with your doctor. CPAP is considered a medical device and requires a doctor’s prescription. Your sleep specialist will likely perform a sleep study to determine the optimal pressure settings. Your specific settings were prescribed for a reason. If you are concerned that your settings are too high or too low, talk with your sleep specialist.
What if I cannot tolerate CPAP? Keep in mind; there are other OSA treatments besides CPAP, which may be an option. Plus, different types of masks can be used with a CPAP machine. Settings can also be adjusted by your doctor. Changing your mask type or pressure settings may make using CPAP more comfortable. In some cases, it also takes a little time to get adjusted to using CPAP.
If I have sleep apnea, what treatment is best? What is considered the most effective treatment for one person may not be the best option for someone else. For example, lifestyle changes, such as losing weight, may be best for some people. CPAP may be a good option for others. The severity of symptoms as well as your personal preference determines what treatment is best for you. Also, the best treatment is the one you will be compliant with.
Author: MaryAnn DePietro, CRT is a medical writer and licensed respiratory therapist.
American Heart Association. Sleep Apnea and Heart Disease and Stroke. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/More/MyHeartandStrokeNews/Sleep-Apnea-and-Heart-Disease-Stroke_UCM_441857_Article.jsp#.WP1t2oWcHIU Retrieved April 2017.
American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. Surgery for Sleep Apnea. http://www.entnet.org/content/surgery-obstructive-sleep-apnea Retrieved April 2017.
National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Who is at Risk for Sleep Apnea https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/sleepapnea/atrisk Retrieved April 2017.