Important facts about Obstructive Sleep Apnea

It is one of the most common sleep illnesses in the world but by far one of the most dangerous. It is so dangerous that it is now associated as an independent risk factor for several dangerous conditions like hypertension, heart disease, sugar problems and even strokes. [1]

Most people know about it, but amazingly a lot more beliefs that it is a myth and do not think it is dangerous. In addition, it is believed that between 3% and 7% of the adult population suffers from it. It is important to note that some subgroups of the population have a higher risk of suffering from this dangerous disease. These subgroups are the male population, obesity, people, especially children, with Down Syndrome. [2]

This disease is called Obstructive Sleep Apnea.

The purpose of this article is then to talk openly about sleep apnea. Also to provide enough information that by the end of this article you will understand the condition, understand why it needs to be treated, how we screen and diagnose it; and probably the most important, how it is treated.

There are different types of sleep apnea, but the most common type is Obstructive Sleep Apnea which we will focus on in this article.

What is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

Let’s break the terminology down. An Apnea (also spelt “apnoea”) means the cessation of breathing. In other words, Obstructive Sleep Apnea, or OSA, for short means “Cessation of breathing caused by an obstruction in the airway while we sleep” This obstruction usually takes place in the upper airway. It may be due to a larger than normal palette; tonsils or the base of the tongue falling back into the throat.

When the obstruction occurs, the person still has breathing effort, trying to suck air into the lungs. Of course, no air (apnea) or very little air (hypopnea) is reaching the lungs, causing a drop in blood oxygen levels and in return causing what we call “arousals” or awakenings to restore muscle tone and allow normal breathing to continue. This cessation of breathing and arousals can happen hundreds of times per night, with the sufferer never being aware of it.

For a short video about obstructive sleep apnea, you can watch it here

Signs and Symptoms

What is the most important sign of OSA? Yes, you guessed it – snoring. 50% of chronic snorers have significant obstructive sleep apnea that is severe enough to be treated.

Other significant signs that we see commonly during sleep studies and which are very prevalent for bed partners are choking and gasping for breath.

Other common complaints are daytime fatigue or what we call excessive daytime sleepiness. Sufferers usually are tired during the day and sometimes struggle to concentrate. Sufferers may also fall asleep easy sometimes even behind the wheel or during meetings. Sufferers may even wake up with a headache in the morning and they also may sleep for long hours on off days and on weekends.

The big take-home message

The severity of obstructive sleep apnea is almost always misperceived. The fact is that it is a profoundly serious condition that if not treated, will cause health problems in the future. It is true that all kinds of apneas have different severity levels, and obviously, the severity will dictate the kind of treatment and intervention needed. The point is. If you stop breathing more than 5 times an hour as an adult, you need some sort of treatment. If you do not get successful treatment, the chances are exceedingly high, that the apneas will get worse over time.

Obstructive sleep apnea does not only rob you from good quality and quantity of sleep. It also robs you from being the healthy, fit and productive human being that you are supposed to be. Every time that you stop breathing during the night while you are asleep, you experience a drop in oxygen levels. Your brain then wakes you up just enough to restore muscle tone and get you breathing again. In addition, every time you stop breathing, your body goes into unnecessary stress – the so-called “fight or flight mode”. In other words, a sleep apnea patient quite literally fights for his/her life during the time of day when the body is supposed to rest and recuperate. This happens hour after hour, night after night, week after week, year after year. Therefore, without efficient treatment, sleep apnea will cause chronic diseases like heart failure, type 2 diabetes (T2DM). hypertension, different types of cancers or even strokes. It will reduce your quality of life and it will have a negative impact on your productivity, over and above the co-morbidities mentioned above.

Luckily, obstructive sleep apnea is so professionally researched, that we as sleep scientists, – clinicians -and therapists all over the world know exactly how to screen for all kinds of sleep breathing disorders. We know how to diagnose it and most importantly, we know how to treat it very successfully.

In the next article, we discuss how we screen, diagnose, and treat obstructive sleep apnea.

If you think that you or a loved one may suffer from sleep apnea, please contact our rooms. We have a network of specialists that will solve any sleeping problem you may have.

[1] M Naresh 2008 ‘The Epidemiology of Adult Obstructive Sleep Apnea’ Proc Am Thorac Soc; 5(2): 136-134

[2] M Naresh 2008 ‘The Epidemiology of Adult Obstructive Sleep Apnea’ Proc Am Thorac Soc; 5(2): 136-134