Sleep apnea affects up to 30 million Americans, and an estimated 80% have not been diagnosed, according to the American Sleep Apnea Association.
Most of the public has heard about this chronic condition and its association with loud snoring and interrupted breathing at night. But given how widespread the non-diagnosis issue is, not enough know the details of this disorder, which can help trigger or be caused by heart disease, diabetes and other diseases.
There are three subtypes of sleep apnea:
- Obstructive sleep apnea — The most common form occurs when the patient’s throat muscles relax while they sleep, allowing the tongue and soft palate to collapse and create a blockage to the airway.
- Central sleep apnea — In these much rarer cases, the brain fails to send the proper signals to the muscles regarding breathing. Snoring usually isn’t a symptom.
- Mixed or complex sleep apnea — The co-occurrence of both types is diagnosed in approximately 15% of patients.
The most common symptoms beyond snoring and pauses in breathing while sleeping include gasping for air while asleep, waking up groggy or with a dry mouth, insomnia and inability to focus.
If you suspect you may have sleep apnea, talk to your primary health care provider about your symptoms. He or she could recommend you have a sleep study performed either at home or in a sleep clinic; the latter is the only way to confirm a sleep apnea diagnosis.
There are several treatments available, depending on the specifics of your case and your personal preferences:
- Lifestyle changes — Weight loss and sleeping on your side instead of your back helps.
- CPAP machine — This is the device with a fitted mask over the nose and mouth with a hose attaching to a machine that sends pressurized air into the throat, keeping the airway open during sleep. This is the most effective treatment available, but some people have difficulty sleeping with it.
- Dental appliance — Also worn during sleep, this device pushes the tongue up and forward to keep the airway open.
- Surgery —Tonsillectomies and procedures reshape the mouth and nose or stimulate the nerve to the tongue.