An estimated 18 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea, a disorder that can interrupt not only your nighttime sleep regimen, but your days as well. If you feel inexplicably tired during the day or have trouble concentrating coupled with a nighttime routine that involves waking up repeatedly, snoring, restlessness or waking and gasping for air, you may have it. Don’t waste any time in seeking help - sleep apnea is more than an inconvenience.
Is Sleep Apnea Considered a Health Risk?
The short answer is yes. Beyond the sleepiness or poor concentration patients with sleep apnea tend to feel throughout the day, this particular sleep disorder has a variety of negative effects on physical health. Patients with sleep apnea are at a greater risk for stroke, heart attack, heart failure, depression, hypertension and, if the disorder is severe enough, early death. When you consider that all of these potential threats accompany a common sleep disorder in America, the severity of how it can affect our lives is sharply in focus.
Who Is Affected?
Sleep apnea isn’t a selective disorder. As a common sleep disorder, it affects patients in nearly every category:
- The obese: The most common reason for sleep apnea in adults is obesity. The more obese someone is, the more likely it is they will develop sleep apnea. Obesity is not the only qualifier, however.
- The fit: I have patients who are thin and fit who have sleep apnea, which is typically caused by changes in or the structure of their throat, jaw or tongue.
- Men: The disorder affects 4 percent to 8 percent of the male population in the United States.
- Women: A woman’s risk is about 5 percent, and this risk increases following menopause.
- Children: I also see children who suffer from sleep apnea – sometimes as young as 2 –however, the disorder often affects them differently. Kids are generally affected with more restlessness and poor attention and concentration during the day, which can affect and disrupt their education. The reason children acquire sleep apnea is generally different, too. While it can be brought on by childhood obesity, the most common reason for the sleep disorder in children is enlargement of the adenoids and tonsils.
What Are the Symptoms?
Sleep apnea is the result of the throat collapsing during sleep, which causes the cessation, or near cessation, of air flow to the lungs. Because of this lack of air flow, patients who have sleep apnea often wake up with dry mouth. They could also wake up frequently throughout the night gasping for air, or notice they had to change positions frequently, which could interrupt their sleeping. Often it’s a patient’s partner who is first to notice a patient’s excessive snoring or periods where breathing has completely stopped during the night. Those with sleep apnea will also probably notice they’re doing a lot of sleeping during the day, or dozing off when they don’t intend to, because their sleep is so frequently interrupted during the night.
How Is it Treated?
Treatment will depend on the patient and their symptoms. The most common treatment, however, is positive airway pressure. With this method, patients wear a breathing machine at night, called a CPAP machine, which forces air into the lungs and keeps the throat from closing. For children, however, the most common treatment is removal of the tonsils and adenoids. There are children who need positive airway pressure therapy, and I’ve seen it used in children as young as 2, but this is the exception rather than the rule. The younger the child is, the more difficult it can be to have them wear a breathing mask to sleep at night.
When Should a Physician Be Consulted?
Don’t suffer with this condition for years. It’s dangerous and it will negatively affect your health. As soon as you notice that you have symptoms of sleep apnea, make an appointment with a sleep physician. A physician will examine you, and you will likely be observed sleeping (called a sleep study) either at a sleep center as the following video shows or at home while on monitoring equipment.
Dr. Ali Al-Himyary is a doctor of Pulmonary Medicine and Sleep Medicine at Kelsey-Seybold. He believes in building a relationship with patients to give them the personalized care that best fits their needs. He cares for patients at Kelsey-Seybold’s Main Campus, the Woodlands Clinic and the Sleep Center.