Sleep apnea is a disorder which is characterized by pauses in breathing during sleep. The brief pauses disrupt the quality of sleep, but that’s not all. Sleep apnea can also have serious health consequences including the following complications.
Feeling tired in the a.m. may not seem like a serious problem. After all, many of us hit the snooze button each morning. But sleep apnea is a chronic problem, which means your overall quality of sleep is diminished on a regular basis.
The brief pauses in breathing also cause a partial arousal from sleep. Imagine being woken up several times each hour. Even if you don’t realize you’re waking up, it can take its toll. Fragmented sleep often leaves you feeling tired the next day. If not treated, sleep apnea can lead to chronic sleep deprivation.
But excessive daytime sleepiness is not just about feeling tired. It also affects your ability to concentrate, alertness and mood. According to American Academy of Sleep Medicine, people with sleep apnea are two and a half times more likely to be involved in a car accident than those without the condition.
According to the American Heart Association, there is a connection between sleep apnea and an increased risk of heart disease. In people who have obstructive sleep apnea, the flow of air into their lungs is blocked. The blockage or obstruction occurs due to a loss of tone in the muscles that keep the airway open.
When your breathing momentarily stops, your oxygen level can also dip. It’s not uncommon for someone with sleep apnea to have up to 20 or 30 pauses an hour.
Because of the decreasing oxygen level, various physiological responses occur. First, your brain senses your inability to breath and rouses you from sleep. As you startle awake, you open your airway and take a breath. Your heart rate, as well as your blood pressure, briefly increase.
Your body also responds to the decreased oxygen level by increased production of adrenaline, which is a stress hormone. Over time, these responses can strain the heart and contribute to heart disease, irregular heartbeats and an even a heart attack.
Type 2 Diabetes
Obstructive sleep apnea may also play a role in developing type 2 diabetes. According to the Mayo Clinic, people with sleep apnea have a higher chance of developing insulin resistance than those without the condition. The release of stress hormones into the bloodstream that occurs with sleep apnea may be partly to blame for the increased risk of developing diabetes.
Being overweight is a risk factor for both type 2 diabetes and sleep apnea. But the connection between both conditions appears to be independent of being overweight, according to the International Diabetes Federation.
Hypertension also called high blood pressure, is a leading risk factor for strokes and heart attacks. Several factors contribute to your chances of developing high blood pressure including sleep apnea.
Normally when you sleep, your blood pressure decreases. But if you have sleep apnea, chances are your BP increases to keep blood flowing adequately to your brain and heart.
When your blood oxygen levels decrease, your brain sends a signal that causes your blood vessels to constrict and allows increased blood flow to your heart. As a result, your blood pressure rises. In time, the increased blood pressure during sleep may start to overlap and occur during the wakefulness.
Fortunately, you can decrease your risk of all the above complications by treating sleep apnea. After having a sleep study, your sleep specialist will discuss treatment options, such as a CPAP machine, dental appliance or surgery. In most cases, sleep apnea can be successfully treated.
American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Risk of Motor Vehicle Accidents is Higher in People with Sleep Apnea. Retrieved November 2016.
American Heart Association. Sleep Apnea, Heart Disease and Stroke. Retrieved November 2016.
International Diabetes Federation. Sleep Apnea and Type 2 Diabetes. Retrieved November 2016.
Mayo Clinic. Sleep Apnea > Complications. Retrieved November 2016.
Author: MaryAnn DePietro, CRT is a medical writer and licensed respiratory therapist with over a decade of clinical experience.