Sleep Apnea: Signs and Symptoms, Causes and Treatments

Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder that occurs when breathing is interrupted while asleep. This condition is caused by blocked airways during sleep, which causes breathing to become very shallow or sometimes, come to a full stop for several seconds to a few minutes. People who suffer from this condition stop breathing several times during their sleep. When this happens, a patient would snore or make choking sounds while sleeping, waking up every few seconds from breathlessness.

Sleep apnea may be common but it’s also a serious condition that requires immediate treatment. The fact is, sleep apnea deprives the body – particularly the brain – of oxygen that may leave the patient feeling tired, fatigued, moody, and sluggish during the day.

Types of Apnea

There are three types of sleep apnea:

Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)

This is the most common form of apnea. OSA is caused by blocked airways, occurring when soft tissues in the back of the throat relaxes or collapses during sleep.

Central Sleep Apnea (CSA)

This condition occurs when the brain fails to send the right signal to the throat muscles. The soft tissues in the throat control breathing and when the brain does not signal the muscles to contract, breathing stops momentarily.

Complex Sleep Apnea Syndrome

This is the most serious of all forms of apnea. Also known as treatment-emergent central sleep apnea, this occurs when a person suffers from OSA and CSA at the same time.

Sleep apnea knows no age or gender. It can affect anyone at any age, even kids. However, there are factors that could increase your risk of developing this condition:

  • Obesity
  • Patients 40 years old and above
  • Larger neck circumference,
  • Large tonsils or tongue
  • A small jawbone
  • Family history of sleep apnea
  • Those suffering from gastroesophageal reflux, or GERD
  • Patients with deviated septum
  • Patients with allergies, sinus problems, or those suffering from nasal obstruction

Patients who suffered a stroke are more likely to develop central sleep apnea or treatment-emergent central sleep apnea. Males are also more likely to suffer from sleep apnea than females. Taking any type of muscle relaxing drugs – such as sleeping pills, sedatives, tranquilizers, opioids – or drinking alcoholic beverages may also cause episodes of sleep apnea.

Image used under Creative Commons from Mateus Lunardi Dutra

Causes of Sleep Apnea

The causes of sleep apnea depend on the form of the condition. For obstructive sleep apnea or OSA, it’s caused by the collapse of the muscles that support the soft palate. When the muscles relax, the airways narrow down or close completely, obstructing breathing and causing gasping, choking, or snorting sounds.

On the other hand, central sleep apnea is caused by the failure of the brain to transmit signals to the breathing muscles, inhibiting breathing for a short period of time. When this occurs, you will wake up gasping for air and have a hard time sleeping or staying asleep.

Signs and Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

The most common signs and symptoms of sleep apnea are:

  • Loud snoring
  • Breathing cessation that lasts for several seconds
  • Waking up with a sore throat
  • Mouth dryness
  • Morning headaches
  • Abrupt awakenings followed by shortness of breath
  • Attention problems
  • Hypersomnia or severe daytime sleepiness
  • Insomnia or Difficulty staying asleep
  • Irritability

Severe episodes of sleep apnea must be treated if the patient is snoring too loudly, choking as he or she awakens or if abrupt awakenings followed by shortness of breath occurs. Intermittent pauses in breathing while sleeping, hypersomnia and insomnia are also signs of a severe case of sleep apnea and if you or a loved one is exhibiting these symptoms, get yourself checked.

When left untreated, sleep apnea may contribute to a number of health problems including:

  • Diabetes
  • Stroke
  • Heart disease
  • Hypertension
  • Liver problem
  • Metabolic issues
  • Depression
  • Severe headaches
  • Worsening of ADHD

In addition, sleep apnea may also cause mental problems and poor performance at school or at work.

Treating Sleep Apnea

Treatment will depend on the type of sleep apnea you suffer from. For milder cases of apnea, the most common treatments are:

Lifestyle changes: losing weight, reducing alcohol intake, sleeping on the sides, managing allergies, etc.

Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) Device: This is a device worn to prevent the airways from closing while you sleep. The CPAP works by providing a steady supply of compressed air through a mask, ensuring a continuous supply of oxygen all night long.

Image used under Creative Commons from Rachel Tayse

Mandibular Advancement Device (MAD): This device is worn much like a gum shield or a mouth guard. It works by holding the jaw and tongue forward so there’s enough space at the back of the throat for air to go in an out while you sleep.

For severe cases of sleep apnea, surgery is also an option. The procedure will correct any physical problem that’s disrupting breathing while asleep, such as an obstruction in inner neck structure or removal of soft tissues. However, surgery is only considered as a last resort and should only be done when all treatments have failed.