Where does sleep apnea come from and what to do about it

What is sleep apnea

Sleep apnea is a temporary stoppage of breathing that occurs while a person is sleeping. Such pauses last from a few seconds to minutes and can be repeated up to 30 times per hour.

In general, apnea is any cessation of respiratory movements that can occur in a variety of circumstances. For example, with bronchial asthma. Or when you decide to stop breathing consciously (say, when freediving). But breathing failure during sleep is very common.

Where does sleep apnea come from and how does it happen

The disorder occurs due to the fact that the airways narrow during sleep and stop letting air through.

The airways narrow during sleep, causing sleep apnea. Illustration: Drp8 / Shutterstock

Usually this is due to the fact that the muscles of the throat relax and the soft palate begins to block the throat. This type of sleep apnea is called obstructive sleep apnea. However, sometimes the reason is different: the sleeping brain “forgets” to send the correct signals to the muscles that control breathing. Then they talk about central sleep apnea.

The risk of airway narrowing is more likely if:

  • You are overweight.
  • You have an anatomically narrow pharynx and larynx.
  • Your close relatives also had cases of sleep apnea.
  • You are an elderly person.
  • You have enlarged palatine tonsils or adenoids . For this reason, sleep apnea can occur in young children .
  • You smoke or abuse alcohol.
  • You are used to sleeping on your back.
  • Your nose is constantly stuffed up and you breathe through your mouth.
  • You have been diagnosed with heart failure, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, or Parkinson’s disease. Other risk factors include polycystic ovary syndrome , hormonal imbalances, previous stroke, and chronic lung disease such as asthma.

There is also evidence that sleep apnea is two to three times more common in men than in women. However, in the latter, the risk of experiencing temporary respiratory arrest increases dramatically after menopause .

Why is sleep apnea dangerous?

The body does not immediately recognize the problem, so for some time oxygen does not enter the lungs. Then the brain begins to react, reflexes are triggered and the person wakes up in order to open the airways with muscle effort and take a breath. As a rule, this is accompanied by a sharp and loud snoring sound.

Awakening is often so short that the person does not notice it and falls back to sleep. However, such episodes are repeated, and as a result, sleep apnea affects health. Here are just a few of the complications .

Constant feeling of tiredness during the day

Due to regular awakenings, a person cannot sleep and recover. Therefore, during the day he wants to take a nap all the time and it seems that he has no strength for anything.

People with sleep apnea are at greater risk of getting into a car accident or having an accident at work. Children with this disorder often do poorly in school and have behavioral problems.

Hypertension and other cardiovascular pathologies

When breathing stops during sleep, the level of oxygen in the blood drops rapidly. To compensate for this, the brain dramatically increases blood pressure and increases the load on the cardiovascular system as a whole.

Therefore, sleep apnea can lead to the development of hypertension, tachycardia, increases the likelihood of myocardial infarction and strokes.

Increased risk of developing certain diseases

Sleep apnea can reduce the sensitivity of cells to insulin and, as a result, becomes a trigger for the development of type 2 diabetes .

In addition, this respiratory disorder provokes non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Sleep apnea has also been associated with metabolic syndrome and an increased risk of complications after surgery.

How to recognize sleep apnea

The most common symptom of sleep apnea is snoring sounds during sleep. But there are other signs as well.

Some of them are impossible to notice on their own. They are usually told only by close people who are nearby when you sleep.

What symptoms can you notice

  • Frequent awakenings at night for no apparent reason.
  • Regular headaches in the morning.
  • Dry mouth after waking up.
  • Feeling sleepy, lack of energy during the day.
  • Problems with concentration.
  • Frequent feeling of tiredness and depression.

What symptoms can other people tell you about?

  • From time to time your breathing stops in your sleep.
  • You snore loudly.

What to do about sleep apnea

If you have just noticed the signs of sleep apnea and are not sure that they require a visit to a doctor, try to correct the violation yourself . This can be done with a slight lifestyle change.

  1. Get rid of excess weight , if any. In some cases, after the body weight becomes normal, apnea disappears completely. Just do not relax: if you gain weight again, the violation may return.
  2. Go in for sports. Mayo Clinic experts say that regular exercise can make sleep apnea less pronounced, even if you don’t lose weight. So try to exercise at least 30 minutes daily. As a load, brisk walking or cycling are also suitable.
  3. Avoid alcohol and, if possible, medications such as tranquilizers and sleeping pills. Because of them, the muscles in the back of the throat relax too much during sleep and interfere with breathing.
  4. Sleep on your side or stomach, not on your back. Sleeping on your back causes the tongue and soft palate to move closer to the back of the throat and reduce the airway.
  5. Quit smoking .

If home methods do not help and you still torment loved ones with snoring, and yourself with daytime fatigue, consult a therapist.

How to treat sleep apnea

First you need to clarify the diagnosis. After asking you about your symptoms, your doctor will likely suggest a sleep test. Such a study can be performed both in a specialized clinic (go to it at night so that doctors can study the activity of your brain, heart, lungs when you sleep), and at home. In the second case, you will be prompted to use a portable sleep monitoring device.

If the diagnosis is confirmed, the doctor will try to determine the cause of sleep apnea. To do this, you will be referred to specialized specialists, for example, Laura (to check the patency of the respiratory tract), a cardiologist, a neurologist. If they find any violation, it will need to be corrected – and then the apnea problem will disappear by itself.

In the event that the immediate cause of temporary pauses in breathing cannot be found, the help of a somnologist will be required. The doctor will select a special device for you – the so-called CPAP device (from the English CPAP – Constant Positive Airway Pressure, “constant positive air pressure”).

This device is a mask to be worn while sleeping. It is connected to a compressor that pumps air into the airways. With such a device, it is desirable to sleep every day so that you really rest.

Photo: Independence_Project / Shutterstock

There are other ways to treat sleep apnea. For example:

  • Devices that help keep the airways open. Such devices are similar to a removable artificial gum, which must be installed in the mouth before going to bed. They slightly push the lower jaw forward and expand the lumen of the pharynx.
  • Surgical operations. With their help, the doctor can remove or compress the tonsils or part of the soft palate to increase the airway. Other options are aimed at pushing forward the lower jaw.

However, such methods are considered less effective than CPAP therapy. But in any case, only a doctor can choose a method of treatment, focusing on your individual characteristics and wishes.

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