We have all slept in the same room with someone who snores when they sleep. Most snoring is due to turbulence of air caused by the air being sucked into the nostrils or the mouth. This usually happens when we are very tired, as this causes the muscles in the back of the throat to collapse. However, certain types of snoring can be a sign of something much more serious, a condition called sleep apnea. Literally apnea means “no breath”. People with sleep apnea are at risk for several serious diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, accidents, obesity, depression and strokes.
If you or a loved one is concerned about snoring and sleep apnea, here are some warning signs to watch out for. Sleep apnea can be diagnosed with a sleep study conducted by a pulmonologist (lung specialist) or an ear, nose, and throat doctor (ENT surgeon)
- You hear the person stop breathing for a few seconds (no sound) and then hear the person gasp or choke for air. The person may even wake up from sleep after these episodes. This is a telltale sign of sleep apnea. The person’s airway is collapsing and literally choking them from inside and the lack of oxygen makes them wake up. Some people with severe sleep apnea can have 30 or more episodes each night.
- The person’s blood pressure is higher upon awakening and gets better as the day goes along. Having the repeated “choking” episodes each night leads to high blood pressure, as the body is under stress. However, as the person is able to take more deep breaths, the blood pressure will normalize, until the person goes to sleep again.
- People with sleep apnea will have daytime sleepiness and unrestful sleep even with adequate hours of sleep. While someone with sleep apnea may look like they are asleep, because they are choking so many times every night, the depth of the sleep is not enough. Good quality sleep requires many uninterrupted hours of sleep. Sleep apnea sufferers can fall asleep easily during the day, and will often resort to drinking coffee or eating sugary foods to try and stay awake during the day. This can be quite dangerous for people who need to be alert such as drivers and train conductors. In fact, most of the recent train accidents have been attributed to conductors with untreated sleep apnea.
- People with larger necks are more prone to having sleep apnea. In general, men with necks greater than 17 inches, and women with necks greater than 16 inches are more likely to have sleep apnea. Obesity may also be caused by sleep apnea, as people may eat more sugary foods to try and stay awake.
- Sleep apnea is more common in people with an overbite (your top jaw/teeth are pushed out more and your lower jaw is pushed back).
Sleep apnea is a serious health condition that requires treatment, which may include weight loss, a CPAP machine, a mouthguard-like plastic piece (mandibular advancement device), raising the head at nighttime with an extra pillow or wedge pillow, and/or sleeping on the side instead of lying on the back.