Sleep Apnea Overview

Sleep apnea is a chronic sleep disorderin which a person experiences pauses in breathing while asleep. These pauses last for 10 seconds or more before the next breath,

usually with a loud snort or snore. It occurs between 5 to 30 times in an hour. People with sleep apnea are not usually aware of their snoring and irregular breathing pattern. The symptoms can last for several years and the person might not even be aware of it.

The word ‘apnea‘ came from the Latin word ‘ápnoia‘ which  means ‘to breathe’. Proper breathing allows us to deliver oxygen to the cells in our bodies including the brain. During apnea attacks, the brain stops getting oxygen. If the period of the apnea is too long, it might lead to brain damage or other respiratory and cardiovascular threats.

Sleep apnea is most common among men but also affects women and children. It is also most common to people as they get older, around the age of 65 years old and above. For women, it is common after menopause. If you have a family history of sleep apnea, chances are, you have a high risk of having it too.

Sleep apnea is most common among people who are overweight and have large neck circumference. Most likely, people who have very small jaw bones and narrow air passages are affected. It can also be caused by sinus problems. In short, any obstruction in the airways can be a risk factor for this condition. In some cases however, the causes may not be physical but neurological.

Types of Sleep Apnea

  1. Obstructive – the most common type of sleep apnea and is usually caused by physical obstructions in the airways
  2. Central – a severe type of sleep apnea caused by neurological dysfunctions
  3. Complex – known to be the deadliest type because it is a combination of both the obstructive and central sleep apnea

Obstructive  apnea is when the muscles at the back of the mouth and throat relax and collapse into the airways. This blocks the flow of air into the lungs and cause pauses in breathing. It is primarily caused by the physical structure of a person’s mouth, throat and nasal passage.

Central apnea is a more serious condition because your brain fails to send signals to the muscles that tells you to breathe. In effect, you stop breathing for a long period. Your body only wakes up to react when the brain realizes that it hasn’t received oxygen for a long time. Sleep apnea can lead to brain damage due to the lack of oxygen circulating in your brain and body.

Complex apnea is the combination of both the obstructive and central sleep apnea and is therefore the most dangerous. If the obstructive sleep apnea is severe, the patient has a high tendency to develop central sleep apnea. In most situations, even when the physical obstruction in the airways has already been resolved by the doctors, the patient still experiences apnea attacks.

Cause and Effect

Sleep apnea can also be caused by a blocked nostril or a deviated septum. People who have small structural airways in the mouth, throat and nose can also experience this. Anything that prevents normal and regular airflow through your body while sleeping can cause you to develop sleep apnea.

The most apparent symptom of sleep apnea is loud snoring. This is your indicator that something is definitely not right. This is usually paired with irregular breathing. This can greatly affect your job and lifestyle. Throughout the day you may suffer from daytime sleepiness, fatigue, memory loss and irritability. Some people experience unexplained headaches upon waking up.

 Sleep apnea can also be developed by children. Check to see if your child is showing signs of sudden behavioral changes, hyperactivity, bed-wetting and irritability. Children with sleep apnea also snore and sleep longer than usual.

If you have sleep apnea, you may develop heart-related diseases. This is because of the poor quality of sleep that you experience because of the apnea attacks. It heightens your risk of having diabetes, obesity and driving accidents. Furthermore, it places the highest danger on your circulatory system. It can cause high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, irregular heartbeat and heart failure.

Is there a treatment?

The good news is, there are a lot of available treatments in the market for sleep apnea. The real obstacle is going through the diagnosis in order to determine the proper treatment for you. Sleep apnea cannot be diagnosed immediately by your doctor with a simple visit from the clinic. There are no laboratory tests for this condition. Your doctor might recommend you to go to a sleep lab for proper sleep monitoring.

A sleep lab or sleep clinic is a medical facility that monitors your apnea while you sleep. A typical sleep lab is equipped with a normal bed and will almost feel like a hotel so that you will easily feel comfortable. Providing a relaxing environment will help the patient sleep easier. Before you sleep, wires are attached to your body to monitor changes in your blood pressure, brain and heart activity. The diagnosis is usually done overnight and you can get the results after a few days. Your doctor will interpret the results and recommend the proper treatment. Remember that going to a sleep lab will not cure your disorder but will help you and your doctor determine the cause of your sleep apnea.

Natural treatments

For mild cases, doctors may initially tell you to lose the extra pounds to get rid of the physical obstructions in your throat area. Exercising can also improve your cardiovascular system to help you fight off the heart related problems brought about by sleep apnea.

Doctors may also advise to stay away from vices.  Unknown to many, smoking and drinking alcohol add to the risk of having sleep apnea. Smoking causes irritation in the air passage. When the throat swells, the airways become narrow. On the other hand, drinking alcohol causes your mouth and throat muscles to relax more while asleep. When the muscles are relaxed it drops down into the airways blocking the air you breathe.

For mild sleep apnea, doing facial exercises daily can remove any stress in your mouth and jaw area. Inhaling steam and applying mint oils like eucalyptus can help relieve you of clogged nose.

 Some recommend playing a wind instrument called a digeridoo which is an ethnic drone pipe made from eucalyptus trees in Australia. A study conducted among obstructive sleep apnea patients in Switzerland showed that the didgeridoo helped significantly decrease their daytime sleepiness and snoring.  Although some people may discount this, others believe that it can help open up the upper airways and strengthen the muscles in your throat to improve your breathing. If you opt to try this solution, make sure that you choose a good quality didgeridoo. Look for one that is made of quality wood. When using, make sure that you always clean the mouthpiece before and after playing to prevent bacteria build-up that might lead to infection.

Treatments for severe cases

For severe cases, you have to consult with your doctor for the use of sleep apnea machines. The Continuous Positive Airway Pressure or cpap machine and the Bi-level Positive Airway Pressure or bipap machine are effective treatments for obstructive sleep apnea. These machines pump positive air into your airway to improve breathing.

Other people cannot tolerate long therapy treatments with the use of such machines. In these cases, they often choose surgery. There are many types of surgeries depending on your problem area. However, surgery alone cannot completely cure sleep apnea.

Going to a sleep clinic can also help you determine the kind of sleep apnea you have and its causes. Knowing the cause can help your doctor determine the right kind of treatment for you.

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