Sleep apnea is a medical condition in which a person experiences brief interruptions in their breathing during sleep. This may occur multiple times per hour through the entire night. Sleep apnea generally occurs when a person sleeps on their back. This causes the lower jaw to drop and the throat muscles to relax which, in turn, obstructs the airway. Generally, the breathing muscles are able to overcome this but, for some people, this isn’t the case. This leads to them not getting the air they need in their lungs and a cessation of breathing.
The brain then sends signals to the body to open up the airway, as it thinks the person is suffocating. This then leads to a decrease in oxygen levels in the blood, which deprives the body’s cells of oxygen. This is called “hypopnea.” If this occurs frequently, it can lead to long-term damage to the body’s cells, along with chronic issues.
There are a couple of main treatments for sleep apnea. Generally, you’ll be prescribed either the use of a CPAP machine or an oral appliance.
CPAP (Continuous Positive Air Pressure) machines are the most widely used treatment option for sleep apnea. The process involves a person wearing a mask that is connected to a machine that supplies a consistent and constant stream of air to the nostrils. This prevents the airway from closing.
CPAP therapy is very effective if used properly but many patients don’t enjoy the feeling of the mask. Because of this, they may not wear it every night. They also need to bring the machine with them if they travel.
An alternative to a CPAP machine is an oral appliance. These appliances reposition the lower jaw and push it forward. This prevents obstruction of the airway during sleep. As the tongue is connected to the lower jaw, it also can flop and block the throat. An oral appliance helps to prevent this. Many patients prefer oral appliances to a traditional CPAP machine when the option is available.
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In order to properly diagnose sleep apnea, you’ll likely need to undergo a laboratory sleep test. With that said, there are some common symptoms of sleep apnea that you can look for. These include loud snoring, irritability, excessive daytime sleepiness, weight gain, depression, falling asleep during the day, night sweats, memory problems, and frequent night-time urination.
There are other sleep disorders that are similar to sleep apnea, which is another reason why a lab sleep test may be required. For instance, you may snore loudly, wake up with morning headaches, suffer from fatigue, or have other issues that are occurring that are not due to sleep apnea.
Speak with your physician about an at-home sleep test if you aren’t able to go to a lab for a sleep test. This process involves connecting breathing tubes and pads at home and using an electronic recorder to measure breathing, oxygen flow, and heart rate throughout the night. Your physician can then look over the results of your at-home test and determine the best treatment option for you.
One way to determine if a sleep evaluation is necessary is by taking the Epworth Sleepiness Survey. This short survey (it generally only takes about two minutes) will help to determine if you need to be evaluated for a sleep disorder. It consists of a short list of questions about your daytime sleepiness and is a great way to determine if you should speak with your physician about your sleep issues.