Sleep apnea, a common sleep disorder, often goes unnoticed, undiagnosed, and thus untreated in many individuals. The quiet but persistent pauses in breathing, followed by startling gasps, can be concerning but are often ignored.
This article will answer the question “Why is sleep apnea dangerous?” if left untreated. It will also help you understand what makes it worse so that you can take preventive measures.
What Is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts.
People with sleep apnea life expectancy can be shorter particularly when left untreated. A study indicates that people with severe sleep apnea have a much higher mortality risk than those without the condition. Moreover, those who have suffered from sleep apnea for up to 5 years have a 30% increase in their risk of suffering a heart attack or dying. On the other hand, treatments for sleep apnea, including lifestyle changes, can add years to a person’s life span.
The two most common types of sleep apnea are:
1. Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)
This is the most common type of apnea and is caused by a blockage of the airway, usually when the soft tissue at the back of the throat collapses during sleep. Symptoms include loud snoring, gasping for air during sleep, awakening with a dry mouth, headache, difficulty staying asleep, excessive daytime sleepiness, attention problems, and irritation.
2. Central Sleep Apnea (CSA)
Unlike OSA, the airway is not blocked in Central Sleep Apnea, but the brain fails to signal the muscles to breathe due to instability in the respiratory control center. People with CSA may experience symptoms like shortness of breath that wake them up or the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep, chest pain at night, a strong urge to sleep during the day, changes in mood, difficulty concentrating, or frequent nighttime urination. Central sleep apnea is less common than obstructive sleep apnea.
What Are the Signs of Sleep Apnea?
Here are the most prominent signs of sleep apnea:
Loud and Chronic Snoring
Snoring alone doesn’t indicate sleep apnea, but loud and persistent snoring, characterized by gasping or choking sounds, may signal obstructive sleep apnea.
Pauses in Breathing During Sleep
People with sleep apnea may experience noticeable pauses in their breathing when asleep, often noted by another person in the same room.
Frequent Nighttime Awakening
A person with sleep apnea often wakes up frequently during sleep, sometimes due to struggling for breath.
Gasping for Air During Sleep
Feelings of choking or gasping for breath during sleep or upon waking can be a significant sign of sleep apnea.
Excessive Daytime Sleepiness
Also known as hypersomnia, people with sleep apnea often feel excessively sleepy during the day due to fragmented and poor-quality sleep at night.
Since there are many causes of morning headaches, you may wonder “What does a sleep apnea headache feel like?”
A sleep apnea headache typically feels like a squeezing or pressing sensation on both sides of the front of the head. Unlike migraines, which are usually localized to one side, sleep apnea headaches are felt on both sides. These headaches are common if you have obstructive sleep apnea and are often experienced as morning headaches due to the oxygen deprivation that occurs when breathing starts and stops throughout the night. Some sufferers may experience these headaches upon waking up at least 15 days a month, and they can last up to several hours.
Difficulty in Concentrating
Lack of restful sleep can cause problems with attention, concentration, and overall cognitive function during the daytime.
Depression, anxiety, and mood swings are common in people with sleep apnea.
Dry Mouth or Sore Throat upon Waking
People with sleep apnea often sleep with their mouths open, leading to a dry mouth or a sore throat in the morning.
High Blood Pressure
Sleep apnea can lead to higher-than-normal blood pressure due to the stress of frequent nighttime awakenings.
It is essential to consult a healthcare provider if you observe multiple signs on this list, as early detection can help manage sleep apnea effectively and prevent serious health complications.
What Causes Sleep Apnea?
Obstructive Sleep Apnea Causes
- Excessive weight: Overweight individuals typically have extra tissue in the back of their throat, which can fall over the airway and obstruct airflow into the lungs while they sleep.
- Age: Sleep apnea occurs significantly more frequently in adults older than 60.
- Male gender: Men are more likely than premenopausal women to have sleep apnea.
- Genetics: Having family members with sleep apnea might increase your risk.
- Alcohol, sedatives, or tranquilizers: These substances relax the muscles in your throat.
- Smoking: Smokers are three times more likely to have obstructive sleep apnea than are people who’ve never smoked.
Central Sleep Apnea Causes
- Heart disorders: Having congestive heart failure increases the risk.
- Stroke or neurological diseases: Conditions that affect the brainstem, which controls breathing, can cause central sleep apnea.
- High-altitude sleep: Sleeping at an altitude higher than you’re accustomed to may lead to this form of sleep apnea.
- Opioid medications: Long-term opioid usage can interfere with the body’s drive to breathe.
- Age: Central sleep apnea is more common in people over 65.
How Can Untreated Sleep Apnea Impact Your Health?
1. High Blood Pressure
Sleep apnea can interfere with your body’s ability to regulate blood pressure. With every apnea episode, blood pressure rises as your body struggles with diminished oxygen levels, causing a release of stress hormones that spike your blood pressure and heart rate. This pattern of continuously fluctuating blood pressure can lead to long-term hypertension, putting strain on your heart and blood vessels.
2. Heart Problems
Sleep apnea instigates severe complications like heart disease and can directly lead to a sleep apnea stroke. Each interruption in breathing leads to lower oxygen levels and an increased heart rate, significantly damaging the cardiovascular system. A sleep apnea stroke can be particularly severe due to the ensuing oxygen and nutrient deprivation of the brain tissues. Therefore, prompt sleep apnea treatment is crucial to lessen these life-threatening risks.
3. Type 2 Diabetes
Chronic, untreated sleep apnea can lead to the body developing insulin resistance, which is a primary risk factor for type 2 diabetes. Sleep deprivation caused by sleep apnea messes with glucose metabolism, raising the risk of both obesity and diabetes.
4. Metabolic Syndrome
This disorder includes abnormal cholesterol levels, high blood sugar, high blood pressure, and increased waist circumference. Sleep apnea, through various mechanisms, including elevated nighttime glucose levels and increased inflammatory signals, can contribute significantly to the development and progression of metabolic syndrome.
5. Complications with Medications and Surgery
Sleep apnea can complicate the use of certain medications and general anesthesia. People with sleep apnea may be at a heightened risk for post-surgical complications, particularly where breathing is impacted. Drugs that depress the central nervous system, such as sedatives, can exacerbate sleep apnea symptoms and increase the risk of complications.
6. Liver Problems
Individuals with sleep apnea are more likely to experience abnormalities in liver function tests, suggesting that the liver is not working optimally. Sleep apnea can contribute to the development of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, a condition characterized by scarring and inflammation of the liver, and that can lead to more severe liver damage.
7. Sleep-deprived Partners
Loud snoring, often a symptomatic offshoot of obstructive sleep apnea, can interrupt the sleep of others sharing a bed or room. Over time, these disruptions can strain relationships and lead to added stress, affecting not only the person with sleep apnea but their partners as well.
8. Chronic Fatigue
One of the direct consequences of untreated sleep apnea is chronic fatigue, establishing a direct link between sleep apnea and chronic fatigue. Because sleep apnea interrupts the sleep cycle numerous times during the night, sleep quality dwindles and results in persistent tiredness. This lethargy impacts focus, productivity, and mood, lowering quality of life. In other words, sleep apnea and chronic fatigue synergistically lead to a deterioration in one’s health and well-being. Furthermore, chronic fatigue can also worsen existing health conditions and compound the symptoms of sleep apnea, intensifying the connection between sleep apnea and chronic fatigue.
What Makes Sleep Apnea Worse?
Sleep apnea is a disruptive sleep disorder that can lead to other severe health conditions if left untreated. Like many health problems, several factors can worsen sleep apnea symptoms.
- Alcohol Consumption: Drinking alcohol can exacerbate the symptoms of sleep apnea by relaxing the muscles in the throat and impacting the natural rhythm of your breathing during sleep.
- Smoking: Tobacco smoke can increase inflammation and fluid buildup in the upper airway. This, in turn, can exacerbate sleep apnea symptoms.
- Use of Sedatives: Just as with alcohol, sedatives can relax the muscles in the throat, causing your airway to narrow or close.
- Sleeping Position: Lying on your back while sleeping can worsen the situation as gravity causes the tongue to fall back into the airway, blocking breathing.
- Respiratory Illnesses: A cold or allergies can temporarily intensify sleep apnea symptoms due to inflamed or blocked airways.
- Weight Changes: Weight gain, in particular, can worsen sleep apnea, as additional fat stored around the neck can contribute to the narrowing of the airway.
Understanding these contributing factors is crucial in effective sleep apnea management. Addressing these issues can mitigate the severity of sleep apnea symptoms and reduce the risks of associated health problems.
How Can You Treat Sleep Apnea?
Therapies and Devices for Sleep Apnea
1. Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP)
CPAP is the most common and effective treatment for moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea.
The CPAP device works by delivering a constant stream of pressurized air to the patient’s airway, which helps keep the airway open and allows for normal breathing during sleep. The air is delivered through a mask that fits over the nose, or sometimes the nose and mouth.
CPAP therapy can provide immediate relief from the symptoms of sleep apnea, such as snoring and daytime fatigue. Over the long term, it can also reduce or eliminate the health risks associated with sleep apnea, including high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, and diabetes.
2. Use of Oral Appliances
Oral appliances are a non-invasive treatment option for OSA, particularly for individuals with mild to moderate cases. They are also recommended for patients who cannot tolerate CPAP therapy.
These devices work by repositioning the lower jaw and tongue, which helps keep the airway open during sleep. There are different types of oral appliances like mandibular advancement devices (MADs) and tongue-retaining devices.
One popular type of oral appliance is the Elastic Mandibular Advancement (EMA) device, which is known for its comfort and customizability. Some sleep physicians also recommend SnoreRx, an affordable device that can be purchased online.
3. Adaptive Servo-Ventilation (ASV) Devices
ASV is a non-invasive ventilatory treatment primarily used for people with central sleep apnea, but can also help treat OSA. Unlike CPAP machines, ASV devices dynamically adjust air pressure levels throughout the night. They work by monitoring your normal breathing pattern and storing the information in a built-in computer. During sleep, the machine uses pressure to regulate your breathing pattern and prevent pauses in your breathing. ASV machines are designed to promote more consistent breathing during sleep and offer personalized therapy by targeting a patient’s recent minute ventilation.
4. Bilevel Positive Airway Pressure (BPAP) Devices
BPAP devices, also known as BiPAP, are a type of non-invasive ventilation used in the treatment of sleep apnea, particularly for individuals who have trouble tolerating CPAP therapy. The BPAP machine delivers two separate air pressure settings: a higher pressure during inhalation (IPAP) and a lower pressure during exhalation (EPAP), making it easier for some people to breathe. This dual pressure level can be particularly beneficial for patients with certain conditions like obesity hypoventilation syndrome, lung disorders, or those who need a higher pressure setting on their CPAP machine. While effective, it’s essential to discuss with a healthcare provider if a BPAP machine is the right choice, considering its cost and the need for careful adjustment to ensure comfort and effectiveness.
2. Lifestyle Changes
5. Weight Loss
Being overweight significantly increases the risk of sleep apnea. Losing weight can relieve airway constriction caused by excess fat in the throat.
6. Regular Exercise
Regular exercise can help ease symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea even without weight loss. It helps by toning the muscles in your throat, which can help keep your airways open.
7. Limiting Alcohol and Quitting Smoking
Alcohol relaxes the muscles in the throat and interferes with breathing. Smoking also can increase inflammation and fluid retention in the upper airway.
8. Uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP)
This surgery removes excess tissue from the throat. It aims to enlarge the airway, making it easier to breathe.
9. Maxillomandibular Advancement
This surgical procedure adjusts the position of the upper and lower part of the jaw. Moving the tongue and soft palate forward can significantly reduce sleep apnea symptoms.
10. Hypoglossal Nerve Stimulator
A device is implanted that stimulates the nerve controlling the tongue. The stimulation helps keep the airway open during sleep.
In extremely severe cases of sleep apnea, a surgeon may create a new air passageway. A hole is made in the neck, allowing air to bypass obstructed airways. This is usually a last-resort treatment.
When Should You Seek Help for Sleep Apnea?
If you suspect that you might have sleep apnea, it’s important to seek help from a healthcare provider immediately.
The symptoms that should prompt you to seek help include:
- Snoring that disrupts your sleep
- Pauses in breathing during the night
- Daytime fatigue
This condition can be difficult to spot on your own, and it’s easy to misattribute these symptoms to stress or other health issues. However, untreated sleep apnea can have long-term consequences for your health, including heart problems. After age 50, sleep apnea affects both men and women at the same rate, and the likelihood of developing it increases as you get older. If you’re due to have surgery, you may also need to get tested for obstructive sleep apnea as patients with this condition may require different treatment.
Can Skinny People Have Sleep Apnea?
Yes, skinny people can have sleep apnea. While it is often thought that sleep apnea primarily affects overweight individuals, this is not always the case. OSA can occur in slender individuals due to factors like anatomical variances. It’s also important to note that a substantial proportion of patients with OSA are not obese.
Can Sleep Apnea Cause Hair Loss?
Sleep apnea is when an individual’s breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep, leading to poor sleep quality and symptoms such as excessive daytime sleepiness. Currently, no direct scientific evidence links sleep apnea with hair loss. However, indirect links can be made through the effects of stress and health changes caused by sleep apnea.
Is Sleep Apnea a Disability?
Sleep apnea is not recognized as a disability by the Social Security Administration (SSA). However, if it is severe enough that it significantly interferes with your ability to work, you may be eligible for Social Security Disability benefits. The SSA evaluates sleep apnea under the Respiratory Disorders section of the Blue Book listing impairments. That’s why qualifying for disability benefits with sleep apnea can be challenging and generally requires demonstrating that the condition causes severe, chronic symptoms that cannot be effectively treated and prevent you from maintaining gainful employment.
Overcome Your Sleep Apnea: Reach Out To Healthy Sleep Midwest Today
Living with sleep apnea can affect your quality of life. But with the proper knowledge, professional assistance, and lifestyle tweaks, it’s possible to enjoy long-lasting improvements in quality and duration of sleep. At Healthy Sleep Midwest in Kansas City, we’re committed to helping you breathe, sleep, and live better.
Don’t let your health take a backseat! Contact us today for treatment options tailored just for you. Remember, untreated sleep apnea is not just about snoring; it is a serious health condition with potential consequences. Prioritizing your sleep health is a decision you won’t regret.