Sleep Apnea: What Treatments Are Out There?

You may be waking up every day tired, or with a headache you can’t explain. Maybe, someone in your household has (hopefully, tactfully) remarked on how loud your snoring is. Only a doctor can tell you for sure, but for many people, these are some of the classic symptoms of sleep apnea, a potentially serious condition.

What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a sleeping disorder, which differs in severity from person to person and which can, when left untreated, become a serious health risk. There are two kinds of sleep apnea. The most common is obstructive sleep apnea, caused when the muscles of the throat become relaxed, obstructing the airway. The other kind, central sleep apnea, is much less common. This type of disorder occurs when the brain stops sending signals to the muscles tasked with breath control and is often associated with heart failure or stroke.

What are the Symptoms?

 Both kinds of sleep apnea can share many of the same symptoms. Your doctor will run several tests and evaluations to determine which kind you have. The Mayo Clinic lists common sleep apnea symptoms as:

  •         Excessive sleepiness during the day, also called hypersomnia
  •         Snoring which is loud enough to disturb the sleep of others, although this symptom is typically associated with obstructive sleep apnea
  •         Short periods of breathing cessation during sleep
  •         Waking up abruptly with shortness of breath, although this symptom is typically associated with central sleep apnea
  •         Waking up with a dry mouth, sore throat and/or headache
  •         Insomnia, or difficulty staying asleep
  •         Extreme difficulty focusing or paying attention during the day

If you are troubled by snoring, sleeplessness or sleep apnea’s other indicators or, if you or another member of your household notices some symptoms in particular, the Mayo Clinic suggests you seek out a doctor’s support. These symptoms include:

  •         Very loud snoring on a nightly or almost-nightly basis
  •         Shortness of breath that wakes you up, sometimes accompanied by a choking, snorting or gasping sound
  •         Breathing cessation during sleep, even if just for a few seconds at a time
  •         Severe exhaustion during the day  

It is important to remember that not everyone who snores has sleep apnea. However, for those who do, medical diagnosis is important. Only then can you make the changes which may help alleviate the condition.

Risk Factors for Sleep Apnea

There are specific risk factors for sleep apnea. These include:

Central Sleep Apnea:

  •         Men
  •         Adults over 65
  •         Having a heart disorder, such as atrial fibrillation or congestive heart failure
  •         Having a stroke or brain tumor

Obstructive Sleep Apnea:

  •         Being overweight
  •         Adults over 65
  •         Men
  •         People who have a narrowed airway: This can be the result of heredity, enlarged tonsils or adenoids, or from having a thick neck with a large circumference
  •         African Americans
  •         People with a family history of the disorder
  •         Cigarette smokers
  •         People who drink alcohol
  •         People who use sedatives or tranquilizers
  •         Individuals with allergies or anatomical issues resulting in nasal congestion

Treatments for Sleep Apnea

If left untreated, sleep apnea can cause serious medical conditions including heart problems, stroke and high blood pressure. If your doctor determines you have the disorder, he or she will suggest several, potential treatments, based upon the type of sleep apnea you have, your lifestyle choices, overall health and other factors. These may include:

  • Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) – One of the most common treatments, CPAP delivers air pressure through a face mask worn over the nose during sleep. Used primarily for those with moderate-to-severe sleep apnea, CPAP keeps the upper airway passage open, so that apnea and snoring are prevented. CPAPs take some getting used to but for many, look more cumbersome than they feel, given time and practice    
  • Bilevel positive airway pressure (BPAP) – An alternative to CPAP, BPAPs provide a differing type of airway pressure and for some people are more effective or more comfortable
  • Expiratory positive airway pressure (EPAP) – A single-use, disposable device, EPAPs are small enough to easily fit over each nostril individually, providing maximum comfort for many individuals who cannot adjust to CPAPs or BPAPs
  • Oral appliance – There are several types of oral appliances which can be worn that keep the throat open, eliminating airway obstruction. Typically, these are easy to use but may not be as effective as CPAPs or other devices. Oral appliances are fitted at the dentist’s office      
  • Surgery – Several types of surgical procedures are available if no other type of treatment has worked within three months of proactive, prior treatment
  • Some people will find their sleep apnea symptoms dissipate if they are treated for other underlying medical conditions, such as heart or neuromuscular disorders, or if they receive supplemental oxygen during sleep time hours

Lifestyle Changes Which May Help

Mild-to-moderate obstructive sleep apnea may dissipate with lifestyle changes. These include:

  • Stop smoking – Cigarette smokers are three-times as likely to have obstructive sleep apnea than non-smokers do
  • Eliminate the use of alcohol, sedatives and tranquilizers – These all relax throat muscles, which increases risk dramatically, especially if used close to bedtime
  • Lose weight –Excess weight can create fat deposits around the upper airway, which obstructs breathing. Losing even a small percentage of body fat can help
  • Exercise – Those who are physically active experience less symptoms of sleep apnea
  • Sleep on your side or stomach – The tongue and soft palate can shift backwards against the throat, causing an obstruction in the airway, if you sleep on your back  
  • Keep nasal passageways open – Use a saline nasal spray, medication or over-the-counter device to keep your nasal passages open during sleep  

Sleep apnea is serious, but don’t let your anxiety about treatment stop you from taking care of yourself. Many people benefit greatly from simple lifestyle changes which increase overall health, as well as sleep apnea risk. Others find their symptoms dissipate with simple, medical treatment.