Sleep Apnea: Signs, Symptoms & Medical Treatment options

Picture of man with sleep apnea

Sleep apnea

Sleep apnea (AP-ne-ah) is a common disorder in which you have one or more pauses in breathing or shallow breaths while you sleep.

Breathing pauses can last from a few seconds to minutes. They may occur 30 times or more an hour. Typically, normal breathing then starts again, sometimes with a loud snort or choking sound.

Sleep apnea usually is a chronic (ongoing) condition that disrupts your sleep. When your breathing pauses or becomes shallow, you’ll often move out of deep sleep and into light sleep.

As a result, the quality of your sleep is poor, which makes you tired during the day. Sleep apnea is a leading cause of excessive daytime sleepiness.

The main types of sleep apnea are:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea, the more common form that occurs when throat muscles relax.
  • Central sleep apnea, which occurs when your brain doesn’t send proper signals to the muscles that control breathing.
  • Complex sleep apnea syndrome, also known as treatment-emergent central sleep apnea, occurs when someone has both obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea.

If you think you might have any form of sleep apnea, see your doctor. Treatment can ease your symptoms and may help prevent heart problems and other complications.

Other common signs and symptoms of sleep apnea

  • Morning headaches
  • Memory or learning problems and not being able to concentrate
  • Feeling irritable, depressed, or having mood swings or personality changes
  • Waking up frequently to urinate
  • Dry mouth or sore throat when you wake up

Signs and symptoms of sleep apnea in children

While obstructive sleep apnea can be common in children, it’s not always easy to recognize. In addition to continuous loud snoring, children with sleep apnea may adopt strange sleeping positions and suffer from bedwetting, excessive perspiration at night, or night terrors.

If you suspect your child may have sleep apnea, consult a pediatrician who specializes in sleep disorders. Once obstructive sleep apnea is diagnosed, surgery to remove the child’s tonsils or adenoids usually corrects the problem.

Causes of sleep apnea

Causes of obstructive sleep apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles in the back of your throat relax. These muscles support the soft palate, the triangular piece of tissue hanging from the soft palate (uvula), the tonsils, the side walls of the throat and the tongue.

When the muscles relax, your airway narrows or closes as you breathe in, and you can’t get an adequate breath in. This may lower the level of oxygen in your blood.

Your brain senses this inability to breathe and briefly rouses you from sleep so that you can reopen your airway. This awakening is usually so brief that you don’t remember it.

You may make a snorting, choking or gasping sound. This pattern can repeat itself five to 30 times or more each hour, all night long. These disruptions impair your ability to reach the desired deep, restful phases of sleep, and you’ll probably feel sleepy during your waking hours.

People with obstructive sleep apnea may not be aware that their sleep was interrupted. In fact, some people with this type of sleep apnea think they sleep well all night.

Causes of central sleep apnea

Central sleep apnea is a less common form of sleep apnea that occurs when your brain fails to transmit signals to your breathing muscles. This means you make no effort to breathe for a short period of time. You may awaken with shortness of breath or have a difficult time getting to sleep or staying asleep.

How Do I Know I Have Sleep Apnoea?

People with sleep apnoea may complain of excessive daytime sleepiness often with irritability or restlessness. But it is normally the bed partner, family or friends who notice the symptoms first. Sufferers may experience some of the following:

  • Extremely loud heavy snoring, often interrupted by pauses and gasps
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness, e.g., falling asleep at work, whilst driving, during conversation or when watching TV. (This should not be confused with excessive tiredness with which we all suffer from time to time)
  • Irritability, short temper
  • Morning headaches
  • Forgetfulness
  • Changes in mood or behaviour
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Decreased interest in sex

Remember, not everyone who has these symptoms will necessarily have sleep apnoea. We possibly all suffer from these symptoms from time to time but people with sleep apnoea demonstrate some or all of these symptoms all the time.

Medical treatment options for sleep apnea

If your sleep apnea is moderate to severe, or you’ve tried self-help strategies and lifestyle changes without success, it’s important to see a doctor. A sleep specialist can evaluate your symptoms and help you find an effective treatment. Treatment for sleep apnea has come a long way in recent times, so take some time to explore the new options. Even if you were unhappy with sleep apnea treatment in the past, chances are you can find something that works and feels comfortable to you.

Treatments for central and complex sleep apnea usually include:

  • Treating the underlying medical condition causing the apnea, such as a heart or neuromuscular disorder
  • Using supplemental oxygen while you sleep
  • Using breathing devices that will also manage obstructive sleep apnea

Medications are only available to treat the sleepiness associated with sleep apnea, not the apnea itself, so they should only be used in conjunction with other proven sleep apnea treatments.

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