Millions of Americans go to bed every night unaware they have sleep apnea, according to the American Sleep Apnea Association.
Sleep apnea is a chronic condition where you stop breathing during sleep, either due to a blockage of the airway or to a failure of the brain to signal your body to breathe. When this happens, oxygen levels decrease, and your brain wakes you up just enough to allow you to start breathing again. Someone with this condition may stop breathing up to 30 times in one night. It’s common for those with sleep apnea to have three characteristic symptoms: overweight/obesity, snoring during sleep and excessive daytime sleepiness. Ronald Wainz, MD, a sleep medicine specialist with ProMedica Physicians, often sees patients with these symptoms.
A person with sleep apnea often has no idea they had trouble breathing once they wake up, making recognizing the symptoms even more difficult. Its effects on the body, including chronic daytime sleepiness and fatigue, could go on for years undetected — shrugged off as a byproduct of modern-day living. Even more troubling than the sufferer’s lack of awareness are the risks associated with not getting a full night’s sleep.
Besides being sleep-deprived, many individuals with sleep apnea are at an increased risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, accidents, and mood disorders, such as depression, says Dr. Wainz.
Sleep apnea can’t be diagnosed with a normal doctor’s visit or blood test, so how can something you don’t even know you’re doing be diagnosed? The answer is closer than you think. Loved ones are often the first to be vocal about an individual’s loud snoring or may have witnessed the episodes. Mentioning their observations to your physician may lead them to prescribe a sleep study, where trained technicians monitor how well you sleep and any unseen complications during sleep.
Fortunately, there are treatment options that can reduce the risks associated with sleep apnea. The most common form of treatment is a portable machine with continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP. This keeps your airways open by sending pressurized air through your nostrils and/or mouth via a small mask. Dr. Wainz recommends other lifestyle changes, such as exercising, losing weight, quitting smoking, and avoiding alcohol, can help improve symptoms and risks associated with sleep apnea.
If you think you may have sleep apnea, talk with your doctor. He or she can help lead you to a better night’s sleep.