Could Sleep Apnea Be Harming Your Health?

Learn the symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)

Young man dealing with obstructive sleep apnea getting a good night's rest after treatment for OSA.

Learn the symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)

You wake up exhausted again this morning, even though you were in bed a full eight hours. Not only that, your spouse didn’t get much sleep either, thanks to your loud snoring.

No doubt, most of us know that snoring can be extremely disruptive to a good night’s sleep. What many of us may not know is that it can also be a sign of sleep apnea, a potentially harmful sleep disorder.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common form of sleep apnea. Loud snoring is a telltale sign of OSA, which happens when your breathing pauses during sleep. Undetected, this sleep-related condition can lead to serious health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease and depression. In severe cases, it can be fatal.

“Fortunately, many of the damaging effects of sleep apnea can be addressed through diagnosis and treatment,” says John Cronin, MD, a sleep medicine specialist at Scripps Clinic.

What is obstructive sleep apnea?

Apnea is a Greek word meaning “without breath.” People who suffer from sleep apnea are unable to get enough oxygen. Their loud snoring is punctuated with sudden gasps for breath and abrupt awakenings. “This may happen a few times a night or it may happen hundreds of times, depending on the severity of the problem,” Dr. Cronin says.

OSA affects an estimated 25 million people in the United States, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

What causes OSA?

OSA occurs when there is a complete or partial airway obstruction during sleep. It happens when throat muscles relax, allowing the tongue and/or the soft tissue in the back of the throat to collapse and block the airway. Each time this happens, the brain signals the sleeper to wake up and breathe. “As you can imagine, waking suddenly and repeatedly throughout the night does not make for a good night’s sleep,” Dr. Cronin says.

What are risk factors for OSA?

Factors that may increase your risk include:

  • Sex: Men are more likely to get it.
  • Family history
  • Age: Sleep apnea in adults is more common.
  • Obesity
  • High blood pressure

What are the symptoms of OSA?

Symptoms include:

  • Loud and frequent snoring, restless sleep
  • Choking or gasping during sleep, unexplained awakenings
  • Daytime drowsiness, fatigue, morning headaches, difficulty concentrating
  • Frequent nighttime urination
  • Impotency

Sudden drops in oxygen levels during sleep can have negative long-term health consequences, including:

  • Heart disease (heart attack, congestive heart failure, cardiac arrhythmia)
  • Stroke
  • Pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes

Treatment for OSA

A sleep medicine specialist can diagnose OSA using an in-lab sleep study or a home sleep apnea test.

“Depending on your medical history and the severity of the problem, treatments range from lifestyle changes to medication to surgery,” Dr. Cronin says. “In obese patients, weight loss may help. In children, large tonsils often are the culprit, and a tonsillectomy solves the problem.”

For mild sleep apnea, oral appliance therapy can help. This involves wearing a removable oral appliance in the mouth that fits like a sports mouth guard or orthodontic retainer as you sleep. The appliance prevents the airway from collapsing by holding the tongue or supporting the jaw in a forward position.

Many patients with moderate to severe sleep apnea get relief while they sleep by wearing a small compressor hooked to a mask, known as a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). Air pushed into the mask holds the airway open and enables the patient to continue a more normal breathing pattern. CPAP therapy is considered a front-line treatment for obstructive sleep apnea.

When is surgery an option?

In some cases, surgery may be an option as a last resort if other treatments fail to work. Surgery can treat the areas of the airway that collapse and block your breathing. Somnoplasty is an outpatient procedure that uses low-power radiofrequency energy to shrink the soft palate and reduce the amount of obstructive tissue in the airway.

What about children with sleep apnea?

Parents should be aware of sleep problems, especially snoring, in their children. “Generally, children should not snore. If they do, it may indicate enlarged tonsils or adenoids, which can be removed if that is the case,” Dr. Cronin says.

But no matter your age, you should be able to get a good night’s sleep. An inability to do so may indicate a potentially serious condition, he says.

“If sleep problems persist or interfere with work or school, talk to your physician. This is not something you have to live with.”