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Sleep Apnea Risks and Reprieves

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If you snore a lot you may be one of many people affected by sleep apnea. You may be someone who stops breathing hundreds of time during the night but remain unaware of what’s happening. If you’re lucky, your spouse may complain about how much you snore or describe how you hold your breath and stop breathing during the night. If you’ve had this conversation, it’s important to consult your physician for further evaluation as this is very treatable and can avoid serious consequences.

According to the National Institutes of Health, sleep apnea is as common as adult diabetes, and affects more than twelve million Americans. It is more common among men over forty years of age who are overweight, but sleep apnea can strike anyone at any age, even children. Untreated, sleep apnea can cause high blood pressure and other cardiovascular disease, memory problems, weight gain, impotency, headaches, excessive daytime fatigue and drowsiness. The daytime sleepiness and waking in the morning feeling tired and un-rested are common. Sleep apnea is responsible for job impairment and motor vehicle crashes because of the fatigue and drowsiness that contributes to poor judgment.

The basic problem is collapsing of the soft tissue in the back of the throat closing off the airway during sleep. This results in breath holding typically hundreds of times a night for ten seconds to over a minute. The lack of oxygen this causes results in a wide variety of bad effects, not the least of which is simply not resting or recharging the brain. This is known as non-restorative sleep. During the night you may stir and be very restless. Occasionally the person with sleep apnea may wake up during the night gasping or choking for no apparent reason. Often the person is totally unaware of the insidious struggle during the night. You awake in the morning feeling tired as if you never went to sleep. Fortunately, sleep apnea can be diagnosed and treated.

A sleep study done in a sleep lab or at home can determine whether you have significant sleep apnea. This will painlessly measure your snoring, blood pressure, heart rate, oxygen levels and number of times you hold your breath. The results are usually quite startling at the number of times people hold their breath, diminished oxygen levels and restless behavior during sleep. Treatment could be as simple as avoiding alcohol, not sleeping on your back, or weight loss. If your condition is severe enough sleeping with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) can be the fix. Sleeping with this quiet bedside machine and mask will eliminate the snoring and gently keep the airway open so you ventilate normally and allow you get a restful night of sleep. Your spouse will also appreciate the peaceful night as well.

If you regularly snore loudly, feel tired and groggy in the morning, are very restless at night or have been observed to choke, gasp, or hold your breath during sleep, you should definitely consult your health care provider to discuss a sleep study. It could save your life or at the very least improve your quality of life.

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About Bruce Kaler M.D.

  • Marcia Neil

    All the conditions listed cause the sleep apnea — in other words, the author might be ruled ‘crazy’.

  • Brunelleschi

    Great writeup, thanks for posting.

    I would add that anyone sitting on the fence about getting tested, or using a CPAP, should go for it. Getting over sleep apnea will change your life, and make life peaceful for everyone else, even the pet dog that won’t sleep with you because you are so loud!

    I was fighting a thyroid/hormone problem and gained a lot of weight and ended up with apnea symptoms. (I’m male, about 36 at the time.) After the sleep study (just like the one described in the article) I got a CPAP.

    It changed everything (except the thyroid/hormone problem) and I won’t go anywhere without it. Mine has been to Europe and Asia many times.

    I lost the weight and I don’t need it anymore, but I sleep better with it so I still use it. I also always take melatonin before bed.

    Good sleep is good medicine!

  • Marcia Neil

    ..and that’s not all — there are people who take special interest in waking other people (to test reaction time or practice supervision) and those cause sleep apnea that might eventually lead to a form of suicide if the waker cannot be corrected or removed. As example, to many builders the bedroom is just another place one of them has made — there is no threshold in their minds when someone else needs sleep. [in Stuart,FL]