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Sleep Apnea: Why Your Snoring May Be Dangerous

June 21, 2022

If you have a snoring problem, you are hardly alone. It’s estimated that nearly half of the people in United States snore at some point. One in four does it regularly.

Much of the time, snoring is little more than an unwanted sleep disruption for those around you. But for 25 percent of men and 10 percent of women, it’s the most visible -- vocal -- symptom of sleep apnea, a disorder that prevents you from getting a good night’s rest. Worse, it can contribute to a wide range of serious health problems, including heart attacks.

Sleep apneas fall into two categories:

Obstructive sleep apnea: This is when the airway at the back of the throat becomes blocked, causing temporary pauses in breathing.

Central sleep apnea: This is related to a problem in the brain system that controls the muscles used for respiration, causing slow and shallow breathing.

Sleep Apnea Symptoms

Sleep apnea is typically thought of as a male disease in this country. But there doesn’t appear to be any reason for that to be the case. It’s far more likely that the condition is significantly underdiagnosed in women. This could be because women don’t like to admit that they snore or aren’t being told about their snoring.

As a result, women often don’t realize they have the condition until accompanying a partner to a doctor’s visit, where they realize they share some of the same symptoms. Those include:

  • Snoring: This is the most common symptom, though not everyone who snores has sleep apnea. Snoring can come and go throughout the night and often is loud enough to disturb the sleep of others.
  • Daytime sleepiness: This may be particularly noticeable while driving.
  • Breathing pauses while sleeping: After the pause, you may wake up abruptly, gasping and choking.
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Moodiness
  • Morning headaches
  • Dry mouth
  • Chronic fatigue

Is Sleep Apnea Dangerous?

Sleep apnea can be a significant contributor to a range of silent conditions – those that may not be noticed until they reach a life-threatening level.

The biggest dangers are to the cardiovascular and neurovascular systems, increasing the risk for a variety of health problems, including:

  • Heart attack
  • Heart arrhythmia
  • Abnormal heartbeat
  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Pulmonary hypertension

While these are some of the more dangerous conditions impacted by sleep apnea, there is growing evidence about the effect of the condition on our overall health. For example, there also appears to be a link between sleep apnea and post-traumatic stress disorder, general anxiety and depression. A possible explanation is that sleep deprivation makes symptoms worse and recovery slower.

Diagnosing Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is diagnosed through one of two types of sleep study. The simplest is a kit that you can use at home. You hook yourself to it at night during sleep and then send it back for analysis. It collects a variety of information, including heart rate, blood oxygen level and breathing patterns.

For more complicated cases – including those that might involve more than one sleep disorder – diagnosis takes place in a lab sleep study. You will travel to a sleep center and stay overnight while sleep specialists monitor you.

How Is Sleep Apnea Treated?

The gold standard for treatment is the continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. It's been around for ages, and it's highly successful. It's the starting point for patients with moderate to severe sleep apnea. The machine delivers air pressure through a mask while you sleep. It keeps the upper airway passages open to prevent apnea and snoring.

There are, however, cases where CPAP doesn’t work. This could be for a variety of reasons,  including patients who can’t find a good fit with a mask or who simply cannot sleep while wearing one.

A newer surgical option involves the insertion of a nerve stimulator under your chin and a monitor in your chest – both done during outpatient surgery. While you sleep, the device monitors your breathing and uses pulses to force your tongue forward in your mouth, clearing the airway.

In general, treatment is guided by the severity of the disorder, though some treatments are better for some people, based on their unique characteristics.  These options could include treating nasal congestion, tonsil removal and custom-fitted oral appliances that help keep your throat open while sleeping.

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