Sleep apnea is the involuntary obstruction of the airway causing difficulty breathing. Many individuals are not diagnosed and believe that they are simply horrible snorers. This is because it is difficult to test for sleep apnea in the typical doctor’s office visit because many of the symptoms must be observed while one sleeps and there are no blood tests for the disorder. 1
There are two types of sleep apnea: central and obstructive. Central sleep apnea is the least common of the two and is characterized by the brain failing to send the correct signals to the muscles involved in breathing causing individuals to not breathe for brief periods of time. Obstructive sleep apnea is much more common and is characterized by the airway being narrowed or blocked during sleep.
Many are affected by sleep apnea, and risk of experiencing symptoms increases as individuals get older. Of individuals over the age of 65, 1 in 10 will be affected by sleep apnea. 1
The best way to combat sleep apnea is through weight loss. Around 70 percent of those who have obstructive sleep apnea or snoring are overweight. 2 Weight loss helps with snoring alone, but has also been shown to assist in sleep apnea because of positioning and overall increased health.
Because of this chronic interruption in the sleep cycle, individuals are prone to experiencing all of the negative factors that occur from sleep deprivation. These factors include weight gain, consistent drowsiness and decreased alertness, which can lead to increased stress.
Positional therapy is the concept of training the body to sleep in a different position. Many individuals with sleep apnea report sleeping on their back, which only worsens the snoring. An effective way to combat this is by sewing a tennis ball to the back of your pajama shirt to make sleeping on your back very uncomfortable. Be sure to change your pillow to one suited for your new sleep position.
Surgery on the nasal passages is somewhat effective in treating snoring, however, because it is difficult to determine exactly where the obstruction in the airways occurs, it is not guaranteed to cure individuals of sleep apnea. 2
Oral appliances resemble athletic mouth guards and help push the jaw forward to aid in opening airways. 2 They have been proven to help stop snoring; however, sleep apnea can still occur and go untreated.
For those with moderate to severe sleep apnea, a positive airway pressure (PAP) device is suggested and most widely used. The device is a nose or facial mask that is connected to a machine by a flexible hose that allows constant air flow into the mouth and nose helping to keep airways open.
Sleep apnea can also be treated through elevating the head while still keeping the spine aligned. This can be accomplished through the use of an adjustable bed or inserting a firm pillow below the mattress.
Those with sleep apnea should exercise caution when using alcohol, sleeping pills or other depressants due to the risk of dying because the body cannot be fully aware of when the breathing passage is closed during sleep. Additionally, treating snoring can dilute the warning signs that sleep apnea may be present. Therefore, it is not required to snore in order to have sleep apnea. 2
1. National Heart Blood and Lung Institute http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/sleepapnea/
2. American Sleep Apnea Association http://sleepapnea.org/diagnosis-and-treatment/treatment-options.html