Is there a difference between sleep apnea and snoring? Snoring is a common issue for millions of Australians. It can have significant health and wellness ramifications. But what about when snoring is more than “just” snoring? What is sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea (or sleep apnoea) is a medical condition widely associated with snoring, however, it is much more serious physiologically than snoring.
What is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a serious medical condition. It causes repetitive episodes of complete or partial blockage of the airway during sleep. Most sufferers snore and wake choking or gasping for air.
Sleep apnea typically follows the following cycle:
- Breathing slows as the airway muscles and tissues relax
- Snoring commences
- The airway becomes blocked and breathing stops
- The heart rate slows and blood oxygen levels fall; the body struggles for air
- The brain becomes aroused and the airway is jolted open
- The sleeper violently gasps for air and may wake momentarily
- Breathing rhythm returns to normal
These cycles may repeat many times throughout the night – and severe sleep apnea sufferers can experience more than thirty of these cycles per hour of sleep.
Types of Sleep Apnea
There is more than one type of sleep apnea:
- Obstructive Sleep Apnea occurs directly as a result of airway blockage due to relaxed muscles and other tissues of the upper airway. A complete blockage is called an apnea, whereas a partial blockage is called a hypopnea. This is by far the most common form of sleep apnea.
- Central Sleep Apnea is an uncommon condition which is a direct result of a malfunction within the respiratory centre in the brain (i.e. the central nervous system). Rather than occurring due to airway obstruction, the brain “forgets” to pass on directions for the body to breathe. This can result from injury to the brainstem due to a tumour or stroke, or it can be a result of and is also more likely to develop in people who have chronic cardio-respiratory conditions including atrial fibrillation and congestive heart disease.
- Positional Sleep Apnea occurs exclusively when the patient sleeps on their back. Sleeping on the side in these patients does not lead to sleep apnea.
- Mixed Sleep Apnea results when obstructive and central sleep apnea combine.
Symptoms of Sleep Apnea
There are a number of symptoms of sleep apnea; some of these are the same as those for snoring, and this is why you need to be medically assessed for sleep apnea if you experience these.
- Daytime sleepiness
- Feeling unrefreshed after sleep
- Falling asleep unintentionally during the day
- Poor concentration
- Experiencing headaches upon waking
Implications of Sleep Apnea
If you suffer from sleep apnea, especially if it is not adequately treated, you are at higher risk for a number of associated serious medical conditions. These include increased heart rate; impaired liver function; nerve dysfunction; hypertension (high blood pressure); heart attack; stroke (ischaemic, due to blockages and blood clots in the brain); Type II diabetes; erectile dysfunction; fatty liver disease; and depression. Additionally, sufferers of sleep apnea are more likely to have difficulty losing weight and are much more likely to be involved in a motor vehicle accident and to suffer a work-related injury or even fatality.
Sleep Apnea Treatment
Knowing what causes sleep apnea is the first step to adopting effective treatments.
Almost 80% of people with sleep apnea are clinically obese. Other risk factors include having a large neck circumference, older age, family history of the condition, cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption, using sedatives, and having facial abnormalities such as a small lower jaw or chin, an abnormal bite, or a narrow soft palate.
According to studies, 92% of obese males over age 45 experience sleep apnea. Experts estimate that 80% of Australians who have sleep apnea remain undiagnosed. Diagnosis involves having a comprehensive overnight sleep study in a specialist sleep clinic.
Most treatments for obstructive sleep apnea involve lifestyle modifications (e.g. avoiding alcohol, sleeping on the side, and losing weight) as well as using the CPAP machine during sleep.
It is crucial that if you suspect you have sleep apnea, you see your doctor for full health and sleep assessment. Effectively treating sleep apnea can control some symptoms very quickly, and can result in a longer lifespan, reduced risks of heart attack and stroke, and better control of Type II diabetes. Your risk of being involved in (or causing) an accident will also fall.
Contact your local doctor for an appointment to determine whether you have sleep apnea and begin the process of managing it for a better, longer life.