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Personal Health

Sleep Apnea: The Invisible Sleep Disrupter

Are you always tired and irritable no matter how many hours of sleep you get? Does your significant other complain about your snoring? These signs could point to a problem you may not have considered: sleep apnea.

Also called sleep-disordered breathing, this is a very common sleep issue. It can cause your breathing to become very shallow or stop altogether for a few seconds to minutes. This can happen several times an hour. But how do you know if you're suffering from sleep apnea, and is there anything you can do about it?

The Common Signs and Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

Unless someone sleeping in the same room notices that you seem to stop breathing from time to time or suddenly gasp in the middle of the night, you probably have no idea that you have sleep apnea. Anyone can develop the disorder, but it's more common among men and becomes more common as you get older. Other risk factors include high blood pressure, having a large neck size, being obese, sedation from drugs or alcohol, and abnormalities in the airway.

Since you can't always tell if you have the disorder, your symptoms are likely based on how you feel because of a lack of sleep. They include:

  • Waking often, feeling like you're choking or gasping
  • Frequent morning headaches, dry mouth, or sore throat
  • Not feeling refreshed in the morning
  • Waking frequently to urinate
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Low energy

Diagnosing the Problem

An official diagnosis is usually based on your history, followed by participating in a sleep test that monitors your sleep stages. Sleep tests are generally done in a sleep laboratory at night. Electrodes are attached to your head and chest, and you're left to sleep in a room where you can be monitored. You may think that it will be hard to sleep in this situation, but the staff do their best to make the environment as comfortable and inviting as possible. The equipment measures your sleep cycles, how often your breathing slows down or stops, how you move about in bed, and how often you wake up. If you normally take medication to help you sleep, check with your doctor whether you should before the test. There are also some studies that may be done in your own home.

Knowing Your Treatment Options

Oftentimes, if you suffer from sleep apnea, there's a root cause. In some cases, eliminating the cause is the best way to treat the disorder. Here are some common causes.

  • Sedation: If you're sedated at night, either by taking prescribed or nonprescribed drugs, or with alcohol, removing the sedation may help you breathe properly when you sleep.
  • Obesity: If you're overweight, this could be narrowing your trachea (breathing tube) when your body is relaxed during sleep. Weight loss could reduce this.
  • Sleep position: Some people develop sleep apnea only when they sleep in certain positions — most often the back. Placing a pillow behind your back may keep you from rolling over.

If these steps don't reduce or eliminate your symptoms, there are other treatments available, including:

  • Dental devices: A mouthpiece worn when you sleep may help move your jaw forward.
  • Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP): CPAP machines use air pressure to push air into your airway, through a mask or nasal piece.
  • Surgery: This is an option if your disorder is caused by excess tissue that blocks the airway, such as enlarged tonsils, or if your jaw needs to be shifted a bit to provide a wider opening.

Sleep apnea can be a serious issue. The constant fatigue and brain fuzziness that accompanies the lack of sleep can affect your quality of life and it can make you more prone to accidents. If you suspect that you suffer from a sleep disorder, talk to your doctor about testing and treatment. There are few things better in life than waking up in the morning feeling refreshed and ready to start your day.

Posted in Personal Health

Marijke Vroomen Durning, RN is a Montreal-based writer. She is a registered nurse with many years of experience working with patients and their families, literally from birth to death. Her first job in nursing was in postpartum and her last in hospice. She has written for outlets like Costco Connection, Forbes.com, and Oncology Live, to name a few, and is author of the book, Just the Right Dose: Your Smart Guide to Prescription Medications & How to Take Them Safely.

*This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute health care advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor or physician before making health care decisions.