How to Identify and Treat Sleep Apnea

This life-threatening sleep disorder is keeping 18 million of us up at night, and half of us don’t even know it.

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Few things are as important to our health as getting good sleep. And yet almost three-quarters of Americans aren't even logging 7 hours per night - the minimum amount we all need to function well. Worse yet, many of us are suffering from a serious sleep disorder that not only compromises our sleep but also puts our lives at risk. If you (or someone you love) has trouble sleeping, read on. A good night's sleep could save your life. 

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Normally when we sleep, the throat muscles keep our airway open so we can breathe in plenty of oxygen. When people suffer from sleep apnea, the airway narrows dangerously either because the throat muscles relax too much, the tongue and tonsils are too large in relation to the windpipe, or extra tissue from being overweight thickens the windpipe wall, narrowing the airway. Sleep apnea can also happen when the brain does not communicate well with the muscles that need to keep the airway open.

The result is a vibration caused by the unsuccessful effort to pull in air - the telltale snoring of sleep apnea sufferers. Eventually, when oxygen intake becomes too low, your brain will wake you up to prevent you from dying in your sleep. For people with severe sleep apnea, this can happen hundreds of times a night.

Why Is Sleep Apnea Dangerous?

Beyond making you and your partner miserable and exhausted, sleep apnea is a major cause of high blood pressure and can lead to inflammation and clogging in your arteries. Over the long term, it often results in irritability and depression, and in some instances, can kill someone in their sleep.

What Are The Signs and Symptoms of Sleep Apnea?

  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Loud snoring at night
  • Interruptions in nighttime breathing
  • Abrupt awakenings followed by shortness of breath
  • Acid reflux
  • Frequent nighttime urination
  • Headaches
  • Memory loss
  • Large neck size (over 17 inches for men and 16 for women)


What Can You Do?

Lifestyle changes are one of the best ways to eliminate sleep apnea, especially for people with mild to moderate cases. Make these important changes to get a better night's sleep:

Step 1: Get enough sleep. A tired brain functions poorly and is less and less able to respond to low oxygen at night, which means your apneas will become more frequent and prolonged. Getting adequate sleep consistently is critical to helping your brain regulate your oxygen intake. Follow these tips for sound sleep hygiene .

Step 2: Stop smoking and lose excess weight. Cigarette smoke inflames the airways, narrowing them and making it more difficult for enough oxygen to get in. Losing 10% of your body weight will improve sleep apnea by a third. For most average-sized women you only have 10 pounds to lose to achieve that relief. If you're a smoker and need help quitting, follow Dr. Oz's plan to kick the habit .

Step 3: Treat nasal congestion. Over-the-counter nasal sprays, neti pots, saline drops, and decongestants can help reduce nasal inflammation and open up your airway.

Step 4: Avoid alcohol and sedatives.  Alcohol and sedatives depress your brain activity, further compromising its ability to help you get enough oxygen. Though a sleeping pill might seem like a solution to a bad night's sleep, it actually hinders your brain from doing its job - keeping you alive.

What Can Your Doctor Do?

The good news about sleep apnea is that there are very effective treatments for it. For people with severe sleep apnea, the first choice is a mask worn at night that provides continuous positive airway pressure. Nicknamed the CPAP, it is a mask attached to a tube that goes into your throat and blows air to keep your airway open, and it has a 90 to 95% success rate. It can be difficult to adjust to so you should try it out for short periods in front of the TV until you are more comfortable with it.

For people with mild to moderate sleep apnea, there is a portable dental device worn in the mouth to pull the lower jaw forward, creating a larger airway. Surgery can accomplish the same goal.

Don't Wait to Get Help

No one needs to suffer when they sleep. Getting rid of sleep apnea will not only change your life, it can save your life.