Health > Sleep Apnea – Symptoms, Causes and Treatment
11th Jan 2022

Sleep Apnea – Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

“A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book.” — Irish Proverb

Getting a ‘good night’s sleep’ is inevitably one of the most satisfying things we humans do in our lives. Not only does it bring pleasure and relaxation, but it is also needed for an efficiently working brain.

It is said that the first step to solving a problem is to recognize the problem. Perhaps you are constantly feeling tired and irritable despite getting 7-8 hours of sleep. Sometimes you feel so worn out that even a cup of coffee doesn’t seem to help. In the back of your mind- you feel like something is wrong, but can’t figure out what. Now, might be the right time to step back and examine how you sleep.

What is Sleep Apnea?

In simple words, sleep apnea is a potentially serious sleeping disorder in which breathing stops and starts time and again. Sleep apnea causes the airway to block repeatedly, limiting the quantity of air that reaches the lungs. When a person stops breathing, their body detects a diminishing oxygen supply which causes them to wake up abruptly. This might happen once or even a hundred times in a single course of sleep.

Sleep apnea also causes one to snore loudly or make choking noises while trying to breathe. Most people might be unaware that sleep apnea could be the root cause of several significant health complications. If untreated, it can lead to serious consequences. According to studies, about 80 percent of people with sleep apnea are undiagnosed.

Types of Sleep Apnea

There are three types of sleep apnea.

  • Central sleep apnea (CSA): In this type of sleep apnea, pauses in breathing are a result of the brain failing to signal the respiratory system to breathe.
  • Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA): In this type of sleep apnea, pauses in breathing are caused by a physical blockage in the airways caused by fatty tissues of the tongue and throat.
  • Complex sleep apnea: This type of sleep apnea is a concomitance of CSA and OSA.

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea have a lot of symptoms in common which makes it difficult to diagnose which type of sleep apnea one has. The classic sleep apnea symptoms are:

  • Snoring: Loud and chronic snoring is the most common sleep apnea symptom which is caused by partial blockages in one’s airway.
  • Frequent breaks or pauses in breathing: The fatty tissues of the throat or tongue become relaxed throughout sleep and fall across one’s airways which causes oxygen flow restriction and prevents respiration for several seconds. It also presents itself as gasping for air.
  • Fatigue during the day:  One of the most frequently neglected sleep apnea symptoms is excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS). EDS is a condition where a person experiences overwhelming daytime drowsiness and fatigue.
  • Headache: Since sleep apnea causes one to stop breathing frequently during the night, less or no oxygen is making its way to the brain. Vascular headaches are caused due to the reduced oxygen levels.
  •  Mood swings, depression, or irritability: Insufficient sleep more or less every night can make one more irritable, prone to anxiety, short-tempered, and eventually trigger depression. It can also cause one to have difficulty thinking or focusing.
  • Sore throat and dry mouth: Respiratory tracts of individuals with sleep apnea are usually really stressed, which causes sore throat and dry mouth. It is also caused by sleeping with the mouth open in individuals with sleep apnea.

Sleep Apnea Causes

The most common obstructive sleep apnea cause in adults is obesity, and this is because of the fatty tissues in the mouth and throat which cause airway obstruction that leads to sleep apnea. More than 50% of people with obstructive sleep apnea have a BMI of 25 or more.

Some other causes for obstructive sleep apnea are a narrow throat, round head, hypothyroidism, acromegaly, allergies, deviated septum, medical conditions that congest upper airways, smoking, and alcohol or drug abuse.

Central sleep apnea is predominantly called ‘idiopathic’ because it is hard to know its cause. Sometimes CSA is linked to other illnesses, any medication, or one’s environment in general. Some probable central sleep apnea causes are- stroke, heart failure, kidney problems, and medicines containing hydrocodone or fentanyl, or living in high altitudes.

Sleep Apnea Diagnosis

Sleep apnea can be diagnosed based on one’s signs and symptoms and sleeping patterns or history.

The first step to diagnosing sleep apnea is an evaluation by overnight monitoring. Some tests used for sleep apnea diagnosis are-

  • Nocturnal polysomnography: This test hooks one up to a piece of equipment that monitors the heart, breathing patterns, arm and leg movements, blood oxygen levels, and brain activity while one is asleep.
  • Sleep apnea test at home: The doctor might provide simplified tests that can be used at home to diagnose sleep apnea. These tests generally measure the heart rate, blood oxygen level, and breathing patterns.

Portable monitoring devices (home sleep tests) aren’t able to detect all cases of sleep apnea, so one’s doctor still might recommend polysomnography even if the initial reports are normal.

If one is diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea, the doctor might refer them to an ENT to rule out any blockage in the nose or throat. In the case of central sleep apnea- to a cardiologist and/or a neurologist look for causes of sleep apnea.

Sleep Apnea Treatments

If the sleep apnea is mild, then lifestyle changes are recommended such as exercising or quitting alcohol and/or smoking just like other sleep disorder treatments. If these measures show no results or the sleep apnea is moderate to severe, a number of other sleep apnea treatment methods are mentioned below.

Certain devices, commonly known as sleep apnea machines or gears can help open the blocked airway. Other more severe cases might require surgery.

Sleep Apnea Remedies and Therapies

Traditional sleep apnea therapies include wearing a CPAP mask (commonly known as a sleep apnea machine in India) at night. Here are some sleep apnea therapies which may offer some benefits-

  • Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP): In the case of moderate to severe sleep apnea, one might benefit from using the sleep apnea machine or the CPAP machine. It delivers air pressure through a mask during your sleep. The pressure is slightly greater than the surrounding air and it prevents sleep apnea and snoring by keeping the upper airway passages open. Although this is the most reliable method of treating sleep apnea, some people find it uncomfortable. The solution to this is to give it some time to adjust or try to find a comfortable mask.
  • Other airway pressures sleep apnea devices/machines: If the CPAP machine is not working for one, other sleep apnea machines such as BPAP, ASV, and Auto-CPAP can be advised by the doctor.
  • Some other therapies would be- treating other medical problems which cause sleep apnea and/or using supplemental oxygen.

Some lifestyle changes also might be your sleep apnea solution! Some of the remedies that one could try are- losing weight, practicing yoga, altering one’s sleep position, using a humidifier, avoiding alcohol and smoking, and using oral appliances.

Sleep Apnea side effects and complications

Low levels of oxygen in the brain and body can cause a lot of long-term complications in your health. Some of which are-

  • Hypertension
  • Stroke or heart failure
  • Type 2 pre-diabetes and diabetes
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease
  • Nocturnal angina
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Abnormal heart rhythm
  • Liver problems
  • Depression

Sleep apnea is a serious condition especially in the case of the elderly. Many senior care services provide home nursing services for sleep apnea.