Could Sleep Problems Be Harming Your Heart?

Sleep apnea could be making it difficult for you to get a good night's sleep

A relaxed man sleeps in a comfortable bed.

by Patrick Wolcott, Sleep Specialist

You woke 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 jackhammer-like 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 a serious, potentially harmful condition known as obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA. In severe cases, it can be fatal.

Sleep apnea in the United States

Apnea is a Greek word meaning “without breath.” Accordingly, people who suffer from sleep apnea are unable to get enough oxygen. Their thunderous snoring is punctuated with sudden gasps for breath and frequent awakenings. They may stop breathing hundreds of times throughout the night, sometimes for a full minute or more. Often, they breathe only 25 percent of the time.

According to the National Institutes of Health, more than 12 million Americans have some form of sleep apnea. Although it can affect anyone at any age (even children), the most common risk factors are being male, over the age of 40 and overweight. Heredity, obesity and loss of muscle tone with age also may contribute.

Sleep apnea occurs when the soft tissue in the rear of the throat collapses and closes during sleep, blocking the airway as a result. 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.

Effects of OSA and lost sleep

At the least, sleep apnea may cause daytime drowsiness and irritability. For many people, though, the consequences can be much more serious. Left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to headaches, memory problems, weight gain, frequent nighttime urination, impotency and even diabetes.

Perhaps most alarming is that sleep apnea is now understood to be a major cause of cardiac disease. People who suffer from sleep apnea have four times the average risk of developing hypertension, and are more likely to experience a heart attack, congestive heart failure, cardiac arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) or stroke.

Treatment for sleep apnea

Fortunately, sleep apnea can be treated. Depending on a person’s medical history and the severity of the problem, treatments range from lifestyle changes to medication to surgery. In obese patients, weight loss may help. In children, large tonsils often are the culprit, and a tonsillectomy solves the problem.

Many patients get relief by wearing a small compressor hooked to a mask, known as a CPAP, while they sleep. Air pushed into the mask holds the airway open and enables the patient to continue breathing.

In some cases, surgery may be an option. Somnoplasty, an outpatient procedure performed under local anesthesia, uses controlled, low-power radiofrequency energy to shrink the soft palate and reduce the amount of obstructive tissue in the airway. A sleep specialist can determine whether surgery is recommended.

Watch for OSA warning signs

In addition to disruptive snoring and restless sleep, other sleep apnea symptoms include choking or interrupted breathing during sleep and unexplained awakenings. Daytime symptoms, such as morning headaches and fatigue, can also be warning signs.

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. The growing increase in childhood obesity may contribute to sleep apnea as well.

No matter what your age, you should be able to get a good night’s sleep — and the inability to do so may indicate a potentially serious condition. If sleep problems persist or interfere with work or school, talk to your physician. This is not something you have to live with.

This Scripps Health and Wellness information was provided by Patrick Wolcott, MD, a sleep specialist at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla.