Sleep apnea is the most frequent chronic respiratory problem, behind asthma, that can be the cause of a sudden death during sleep. Learn about this respiratory condition and how to treat it.

What are the characteristics of sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea consists of long interruptions in breathing while sleeping. These can go from a couple of seconds to longer than 10 seconds. The longer and more frequent they are, the more severe the condition is considered.

It is called:

  • light sleep apnea if there aren’t more than 15 interruptions in an hour;
  • moderate sleep apnea if there are between 15 and 30 interruptions in an hour;
  • severe sleep apnea if there are more than 30 interruptions within an hour.

One of the problems with sleep apnea is that it is often not diagnosed in time. The patient spends most of their life poorly oxygenating their body at night and not getting a good rest.

 

Symptoms of sleep apnea

  • Not feeling rested upon waking
  • Waking up often during the night (caused by the body’s efforts to start breathing again, which takes the person out of their deep sleep)
  • Daytime sleepiness and fatigue
  • In serious cases, falling asleep at work or while driving
  • Loud snoring (independent of sleeping position)
  • Headaches when waking
  • Dry mouth and throat
  • Loss of attention/concentration
  • Depression and discouragement

Causes of sleep apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea is the apnea that is the most common and most frequent in the following groups:

  • People who are obese or overweight,
  • Smokers,
  • Alcoholics,
  • Sedentary people,
  • People whose lower jaw is shorter than their upper jaw,
  • People between 50 and 70 years of age.

 

Health consequences of sleep apnea

In addition to the risk – up to 7 times greater – of getting in a car accident or work incident, because of fatigue and lack of sleep, severe sleep apnea can have important consequences on your health and increase the risk of high blood pressure, ischemic heart disease (sore throat, infarction…) and cerebrovascular accidents (stroke).

 

Treating sleep apnea

If you believe you are suffering from sleep apnea or have been diagnosed by your doctor, you should get a referral to a sleep specialist and have a sleep study done. This consists of spending a night at the hospital during which they will confirm or not the diagnosis.

This exam will allow you to know:

  • the number of apneas you have,
  • their length,
  • the level of oxygen saturation during the apneas,
  • the functioning of your heart,
  • the effort given by your heart,
  • the quality of the rest of your sleep.

Once the diagnostic has been conducted, several actions can be taken:

  1. Improve the quality of your sleep
    How? By losing weight, stopping bad habits such as smoking or alcohol, regularly being active, having a light dinner at least two hours before bed, slightly raising the head of the bed, avoid sleeping on your back…
  2. Consult an ear, nose and throat specialist
    Having a specialist opinion
    on the possibility of a surgical treatment to rectify the palate, to open the nasal septum, to remove polyps if present, etc.
  3. Think about using a CPAP device
    Consider using one when surgical treatment is not recommended, because of age or other severe pathologies, or because it would not be effective. The device is a mask connected via tube to a small air compressor that prevents the blockage of the airway. Despite the inconvenience of sleeping with a mask, the results are 90% positive and, in a short amount of time, the patient acknowledges not only better sleep but an improved quality of life.

In any case, the treatment should be adapted to each individual patient as we all have different characteristics.

If you snore a lot, if you are tired upon waking or if you think you are suffering from sleep apnea, do not hesitate to consult a professional.

 

References:                                                       

  • Text validated by Dr. Trallero.
  • Instituto del Sueño. Apnea del sueño.
  • National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. ¿Qué es la apnea del sueño?