What Is Sleep Apnea and What Are The Symptoms and Causes?
7 min read
Last Modified 4 April 2022 First Added 14 March 2019
Sleep apnea also spelt ‘sleep apnoea’, is a common sleep disorder where people repeatedly stop breathing throughout the night, this is due to the muscles in your throat or the signals your brain sends. Sleep apnea is a widespread condition that affects a large population of the UK, so much so, that many sufferers are not aware that they even have this condition. To help you understand what it is and help you recognise it, here we define sleep apnea symptoms. And, explain what causes sleep apnea and talk about how to treat it.
There are three types of sleep apnea, ‘Central Sleep Apnea’ (CSA), ‘Obstructive Sleep Apnea’ (OSA) and ‘Complex Sleep Apnea Syndrome’.
Central sleep apnea is the less common of the two and occurs when the brain doesn’t send the correct signals to the muscles which control our breathing.
Obstructive sleep apnea, however, affects roughly 1.5 million people in the UK according to the NHS. Unlike CSA, this type of disorder occurs when the walls of the throat relax and narrow during deeper sleep stages. This creates pauses in breathing, making it hard to take in enough air. Which often results in loud snoring or gasping strong enough to wake you up.
Complex sleep apnea is a kind of sleep apnea that describes sleep-disordered breathing when central apnea occurs but only after they previously had obstructive apnea, this change is due to positive airway pressure (PAP).
The common warning signs of sleep apnea to look out for include:
As the sufferer is asleep during the episode of sleep apnea, they are often unaware there is anything wrong. In fact, the sleep study mentioned in the BBC adds that “80% of those with the condition are unaware they have it”. Often it is the partner or a family member who will notice that during their sleep they appear to be struggling to breathe normally.
The causes of this condition can be down to a number of things and certain people are more likely to be affected by obstructive sleep apnea. The most common causes and risk factors that the NHS suggests are:
If you suspect that you may be suffering from sleep apnea then you should speak to your GP, they may refer you for a simple sleep study. This will involve going to sleep at home while wearing a finger probe which can monitor the sleep apnea episodes you have per hour. If you have 5-15 episodes in an hour, you’re considered to have mild sleep apnea. 15-30 episodes per hour would be classified as moderate and over 30 events per hour are severe sleep apnea, which needs immediate treatment.
The first step to treating obstructive sleep apnea OSA is to adjust your lifestyle. Simple cuts such as lessening your alcohol intake, losing excess weight, and quitting smoking should show improvements. If you take tablets to help you sleep, try and cut these as well as sedatives are linked to this condition.
After this, the first line of treatment is Continuous Positive Airway Pressure therapy or a CPAP device for short. This sleep apnea machine works to gently provide a constant stream of positive air pressure through the airways via a mask. At first, this can feel strange but many people find they get used to the mask quickly and benefit from much deeper and more refreshing sleep as a result.
Other options include a device called a Mandibular Advancement Device (MAD) which acts like a gum shield and helps by moving the jaw to leave more space for the airways. In a minority of extreme cases, surgery can also be helpful if the cause of your sleep apnea is an unusual neck structure.
Although the idea of stopping breathing in your sleep can sound terrifying, our bodies are designed to wake us up so that we take another breath. If left untreated, the effects of sleep apnea, and consequently sleep deprivation, could lead to high blood pressure, an irregular heartbeat and even a stroke or heart attack. In fact, an April 2019 study from the University of Iowa found a link between sleep apnea and multiple myeloma, a type of deadly blood cancer. To sum up, untreated severe sleep apnea can eventually kill you and it increases the risk of heart disease or death by two thirds according to sleep studies.
It’s a commonly asked question whether sleep apnea can lead to diabetes. According to Diabetes.co.uk, numerous studies have linked obstructive sleep apnea with the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. This is because sleep apnea affects the concentration of oxygen within the bloodstream, but is also thought to be due to obesity which is commonly developed with this sleeping disorder.
If this condition is getting you or your partner down, there are some tips you can follow to help with sleep apnea.
If you’re concerned you have sleep apnea seek your doctor’s advice for the specific treatment best for you.