Approximately 22 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea, and 80 percent of these cases go undiagnosed. Sleep apnea can affect people of all age groups but is most common among middle-aged men.
According to the Sleep Apnea Trust, this disease affects one in every 25 middle-aged men. But, can you really die from sleep apnea? The answer is yes.
Untreated sleep apnea can lead to some severe health issues such as chronic heart failure, stroke, high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation, etc.
Also, a person suffering from sleep apnea may experience from persistent drowsiness, which can cause traffic accidents, an accident during dealing with heavy machinery, etc.
- Suggested read: 9 Reasons Why is Sleep Important for Your Health
Moving ahead in this article, you will see in detail about this disease, symptoms, types, health concerns, diagnosis and treatments. Also, you will in a better position to understand the severity of this sleep disorder.
What is sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that can make you stop breathing temporarily during sleep. It occurs when the tissues of the throat come together during sleep and block the upper air passage.
When the breathing stops, the brain registers a lack of oxygen and sends the sleeper signals to wake up. The sleeper usually rouses slightly, gasps, and goes back to sleep.
A person with untreated sleep apnea can go through these motions hundreds of times every night without even realising it. This fragmented sleep usually makes the person tired, sleepy and lethargic through the day.
Symptoms of sleep apnea
Most people don’t even know that they have sleep apnea as they never notice the signs. It is usually a family member that sees the symptoms. Here are some of the most common symptoms of sleep apnea.
- Snoring: Snoring that is very loud, disruptive and regular is one of the most visible signs of sleep apnea.
- Frequent breaks in breathing: The person stops breathing during the night and wakes up with a gasping or choking sound.
- Drowsiness during daytime: The person does not get up refreshed and is dull and drowsy through the day.
- Headaches: The lack of oxygen in the bloodstream that goes to your brain can cause you to wake up with headaches.
- Restless sleep: The patients with sleep apnea are not able to sleep through the night in a relaxed manner as they are awakened continuously through the night.
- Depression: Lack of sleep can hurt the patient’s well-being and can lead to behavioural changes and even depression.
- Dry throat: The patients with sleep apnea may wake up with a dry throat.
- Poor concentration: Lack of sleep during the night can lead to a reduced concentration at work during the day.
- Visiting toilet frequently: Sleep apnea can make you often wake during the night, and you may make more frequent toilet visits.
- Difficulty in driving: Lack of sleep during the night can reduce concentration and slow down reflexes, and this can make driving a problem.
Types of sleep apnea
There are three types of sleep apnea.
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)
Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common form of sleep apnea. It affects 4 percent of men and 2 percent of women, but only 10 percent of these seek treatment, the rest remain undiagnosed.
OSA is caused by partial or complete blockage of air passage during sleep. This blockage happens when the throat muscles relax during sleep, and the tongue or the fatty tissues of the throat block the passage.
The person usually wakes up temporarily with a gasping or choking sound and then immediately goes back to sleep. This process can occur numerous times a night, depending on the severity of the condition.
- Mild OSA: These people go through 5 to 14 sleep interruptions in an hour.
- Moderate OSA: These people go through 15 to 30 sleep interruptions in an hour.
- Severe OSA: These people go through 30 or more sleep interruptions in an hour.
Central sleep apnea
Central sleep apnea usually occurs when the brain does not send proper signals to the muscles that control breathing. Central sleep apnea is much rarer than OSA.
Only 20 percent of the total sleep apnea cases are CSA. This sleep apnea is related to problems of the brainstem.
Mixed sleep apnea
Mixed sleep apnea is a combination of both central sleep apnea and obstructive sleep apnea. Some patients who are treated with obstructive sleep apnea using CPAP machines develop symptoms of central sleep apnea.
Health risks associated with sleep apnea
Sleep apnea is related to many dangerous health conditions. These are some of the problems you may face in you have sleep apnea.
High blood pressure
When you wake up in the night, you stress your body. This affects the hormones in the body, which can lead to increase in blood pressure levels. If you are suffering from high blood pressure, then sleep apnea can make it worse.
People with sleep apnea are at a higher risk of developing heart disease. The low levels of oxygen and the stress of interrupted sleep can lead to strokes and atrial fibrillation.
When a person has been a patient of sleep apnea for 4 or 5 years, his risk for a heart attack increases by 30 percent.
Not getting enough sleep can keep your body from using insulin correctly and this can lead to diabetes. More than 80 percent of people with diabetes also suffer from sleep apnea.
Obese people have a higher chance of developing sleep apnea because of fatty deposits around their necks. On the flip side, sleep apnea can make the situation worse.
Lack of sleep can release hormone ghrelin, which makes you crave for more sweets and carbs. Since lack of sleep also causes tiredness, you are not able to convert these carbs into energy, and hence you gain weight.
Sleep apnea deprives the body of oxygen while you sleep and this can worsen the symptoms of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Sleep apnea also leads to gastric reflux in some people.
Sleep apnea can reduce your desire for sex. It can contribute to erectile dysfunction in men.
Lack of sleep due to sleep apnea can lead to slower reflexes and lack of concentration. This can make you more likely to fall asleep at the wheel and can lead to a road accident.
Can you die from sleep apnea?
According to clinical research, people suffering from chronic sleep apnea have higher mortality risk (1). Sleep apnea can disrupt our circadian rhythm; it can interrupt cardiac and respiratory function, elevate your blood pressure and increase the heart rate.
Ultimately, all these severe disorders may lead to atrial fibrillation, stroke, chronic heart failure and other cardiovascular problems. In short, this sleep disorder can be fatal if left untreated.
Early stages of sleep apnea may not be fatal. You cannot choke in your sleep due to sleep apnea. Your body senses when you are not getting enough oxygen and forces you to wake up.
But the severity of this disease increases with time, and early intervention is a must.
Diagnosis of sleep apnea
If you suspect you or any of your family members is suffering from sleep apnea, you must get him checked by a doctor immediately for a proper diagnosis.
Your doctor will check your signs and symptoms and may refer you to a sleep disorder centre. At the centre, the sleep specialist will do some further tests to monitor your breathing and to study other aspects of your sleep. The diagnostic tests for sleep apnea include:
This test involves hooking the patient to equipment that monitors heart, lung, brain activity, breathing patterns, arms and leg movements and blood oxygen levels while the patient sleeps.
In some cases, the doctor may also give you a portable kit for home. This kit includes devices like a breathing sensor, a heart sensor, and oxygen sensors. If you have sleep apnea, the tests results will show a drop in oxygen during apnea and subsequent rise.
If you have obstructive sleep apnea, the doctor may refer you to an ear, nose and throat doctor to rule out any blockages in nose or throat.
In case you have central sleep apnea, the doctor will refer you to a neurologist for further testing.
Treatment of sleep apnea
There are several treatments for sleep apnea. Making lifestyle changes can cure cases of mild sleep apnea. Severe cases of sleep apnea require treatments like CPAP therapy and surgery.
You can cure mild cases of sleep apnea by making the following lifestyle changes.
- Lose weight: When you lose weight, you lose the excess fatty tissue around the throat which can cause blockage of the air passage.
- Change your sleep position: Sleeping on the side can prevent sleep apnea.
- Quit smoking: Smoking can cause a swelling of the upper airway and lead to snoring and sleep apnea.
- Avoid alcohol and sleeping pills: These relax the muscles of the throat and can cause sleep apnea.
Continuous Positive Airway Pressure
Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) is a treatment in which the person has to sleep with a mask over his mouth and nose. The machine delivers a regular and continuous flow of air to the nose through this mask.
The process helps to keep the air passage open so that the breathing is regular.
Bi-level Positive Airway Pressure
Bi-level Positive Airway Pressure (BPAP) is similar to CPAP treatment. Here the air pressure changes when you breathe in and breathe out.
Expiratory Positive Airway pressure
Small single-use devices are placed over each nostril before sleep. This device allows the air to move in freely, but the air has to pass through small holes in the valves when moving out. This increases the pressure in the air passage and keeps it open.
Mandibular Advancement Device
This appliance looks very similar to a dental shield and is used to treat mild cases of sleep apnea. This dental appliance can be worn over the teeth when sleeping.
It holds the jaw, and the tongue is such a way that it increases the space in the back of the throat, thus widening the airway. MAD can be custom made to fit each person correctly.
Surgery is usually the last option to treat sleep apnea. It is needed in the cases where there is a deviated nasal septum, enlarged tonsils, or a smaller lower jaw which is causing an overbite which can make the throat narrow.
Tracheostomy, tonsillectomy, adenoidectomy and bariatric surgeries are some of the surgical treatments that have been used to cure sleep apnea.
Also known as uvulopalatopharyngoplasty, this procedure involves removing tissue from the rear or the mouth and the top of the throat. Tonsil and adenoids are also removed in this surgery. Tissue removal is a reliable treatment for obstructive sleep apnea.
If you are suffering from life-threatening sleep apnea, the doctor may open your neck to insert metal or plastic tube through which you can breathe. This helps by bypassing the obstructed air passage of the throat.
In this surgery, plastic rods are implanted in the soft palate after you have received a local anaesthetic.
Also known as maxillomandibular advancement, in this surgery, the jaw is moved forward from the remained of the facial bones. This enhances the space behind the soft palate, making breathing easier.
Yes, sleep apnea can kill you if not treated. Sleep apnea is a severe disorder that can lead to complications like strokes, heart attacks that can cause death. If you notice any of the symptoms mentioned above, you must consult a doctor immediately.
After a proper diagnosis by a sleep specialist, your doctor will suggest the best possible option for you. If the problem is not severe, making simple lifestyle changes can cure sleep apnea.