Apnea literally means to stop breathing or absence of breathing hence sleep apnea means to stop breathing when asleep.
When loud snoring periodically stops, due to apnea (absence of breathing) or blocked breathing, we call it obstructive sleep apnea or OSA. While it sounds alarming, OSA is actually quite common and not everyone who is diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea will need treatment.
When a person with OSA stops breathing the brain reacts quickly.
When you fall asleep most muscles in the body relax. When the muscles of the throat relax this allows the structures that are connected to this musculature to vibrate as you inhale and exhale.
Excessive vibration causes the sound we call snoring. Now imagine you are sucking on a straw and as you suck the interior of the straw starts to collapse. Well that’s a good analogy for what happens to the airway of someone who has OSA. It can literally get sucked closed during the breathing process causing an “apneic” episode.
Instantly the brain realizes that breathing has stopped and sends a signal along neurological pathways to the muscles involved. The message sent is urgent and the breathing muscles respond dramatically causing a sudden intake of breath that often can be heard as a loud gasping sound.
Sometimes the reaction will be startling enough to wake the snorer up completely, but not usually. This classic pattern is often identified because it is observed by the bed partners of those with OSA.
The pattern can repeat itself over and over as the night progresses with episodes of apnea occurring up to 30 times an hour and occasionally even more.
Who needs to be treated?
Up to 24% of men and 9% of women have obstructive sleep apnea but not everyone experiences the symptoms that are commonly associated with OSA. Whether or not your doctor or sleep specialist decides to treat your OSA will depend on the number of apneic episodes occurring nightly and how your OSA is affecting the quality of your life in general.
There are a variety of tests that can be administered to help assess exactly how you are being affected. Daytime sleepiness, the effect your OSA is having on your sleeping partner, current health concerns that you may be experiencing along with your OSA are all things that will be taken into consideration by your health care providers when diagnosing and developing a treatment plan for your snoring problem.
Treatments range from surgical corrections to assisted nightly breathing with a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine. Changes in diet and eating habits, diagnosis of allergies and subsequent treatment, use of dental or nasal appliances are all possible treatment recommendations.
Your treatment will depend on the outcome of all tests and the information gleaned from specific questions and questionnaires.
What are the dangers of OSA?
Left untreated obstructive sleep apnea can be dangerous to your health. When breathing stops over and over again during the night one of the consequences is that way less oxygen is finding its way into your lungs.
All parts of your body need a good supply of oxygen to function properly, including your brain. Impaired cognitive ability, fatigue, day-time drowsiness, higher accidents rates are all related to loud snoring and OSA.
The violent vibrations in the soft tissues of the airway passages that cause snoring can also affect the important arteries that are located close by. It has been shown that the inner tissues of these arteries can be thicker in people who snore habitually.
Thicker arteries are typical in people who suffer stroke and heart attack and people with OSA have a two to three time higher incidence of stroke and heart attack than those who don’t snore.
Lower oxygen levels in the bloodstream can cause night-time blood pressure to be higher and heart rhythm disturbance can be a consequent outcome. Heart attack most often occurs during daytime hours when people are more active but the reverse is true for people who are diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea according to a 2005 study conducted by researchers at the Mayo Clinic.
If a person who has OSA were to have a heart attack it statistically would be more likely to happen between 10 at night and 6 in the morning. Proper medical assessment for people who snore nightly is more than important; it’s imperative.
Children Snore too!
Sometimes children exhibit all the same night-time snoring behaviors that adults do and they can be diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea as well. Because children are smaller than adults it takes even less irritation in the throat and nasal airway passages to start the excessive vibrations that we know create the sounds we call snoring. It is also easier for these swellings to trigger apnea.
Common causes of obstructive sleep apnea in children are allergic rhinitis, infected tonsils and swollen adenoids. Allergies, once properly diagnosed can be successfully treated and quite often, when finally under control, the OSA will disappear as well.
OSA can be episodic when infected tonsils are involved and treatment for the infection can relieve the apnea in this incidence, as well. Sometimes though, infections of the tonsils are ongoing and the subsequent swelling of tonsils and adenoids will require surgical removal. Happily, this surgery often resolves the obstructive sleep apnea for the child involved. Read more.
Treatments can alleviate the problem
While it might seem overwhelming when you first are diagnosed with OSA take heart in knowing that many have dealt with these same issues. Your loud snoring and sleep apnea can be treated successfully. And with treatment; the health risks associated with obstructive sleep apnea can be minimized.