Sleep Apnea: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

Obstructive sleep apnea (spelt apnoea in the UK) is a sleep disorder with some pretty nasty side effects. It’s also one that’s becoming increasingly common.

Sleep apnea occurs when the airway gets blocked during sleep as the throat muscles relax, momentarily preventing you from breathing. Your body wakes you up to get your throat muscles working again, clearing the airway so you can breathe again. These events are known as sleep apnea episodes. They can happen multiple times during the night, severely disrupting your sleep.

In this article we’ll cover the symptoms and causes of sleep apnea, and then take a look at the various treatments techniques you can used to stop it from happening.

Causes of Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea can be caused by a range of issues. Here are the most common causes:

  • Sleep ApneaLow muscle tone – Your throat muscles aren’t strong enough to keep your airway open when you relax. This can be an increasingly common problem as we age.

  • Obesity – The more fat you have around the neck, the harder your throat muscles need to work to keep your airway clear. When the weight is too much your neck fat collapses and blocks your airway.

  • Physical abnormalities – Various medical conditions can cause the airways to become blocked, such as enlarged tonsils.

  • Natural structure – Some people have naturally thinner airways than others, making them much more at risk of developing sleep apnea.

Sleep Apnea Symptoms

Here are some of the common signs to look out for if you suspect that you or someone you know might be suffering from sleep apnea.

Loud irregular snoring

One of the hallmark symptoms of sleep apnea. A loud snore is produced by the large intake of air taken once the airway becomes cleared after a sleep apnea episode.

It sounds very different from the slow steady rhythm of regular snoring. Sleep apnea snoring is loud and irregular and is sometimes combined with choking and gasping sounds.

People having a sleep apnea episode can also vigorously move around in bed as the body wakes them out of their sleep.

Morning headaches

Another good sign of sleep apnea. Really bad headaches in the morning can be down to the lack of oxygen to the brain caused by the closed airway during a sleep apnea episode.

Morning headaches can also be caused by oversleeping, so be careful not to confuse them both.

Excessive Sleepiness

Depending on the regularity of the episodes, sleep apnea can be responsible for excessive daytime sleepiness. This is because your body needs to wake you up in order to tense the throat muscles to open up the airways. And since sleep apnea in some cases can occur hundreds of times per night, there’s no chance of getting enough sleep.

For sleep to fully refresh you it needs to spend plenty of time in deep sleep. But getting into deep sleep takes time and requires your sleep to be completely uninterrupted. If you’re having a sleep apnea episode every 45 minutes or so, there’s no way your body can enter into deep sleep. So even if did get a good number of hours of sleep, your sleep quality wouldn’t be good enough to replenish you.

Having poor sleep quality each night will cause major sleep deprivation and all the nasty effects that come with it.

A good indicator of a lack of sleep are the Stanford and Epworth sleepiness tests. Your test scores will give you a clear idea if you’re suffering from a lack of sleep.

Sleep Apnea Treatment

There’s a range of treatments and methods available to help reduce and in some cases completely stop sleep apnea. Here’s a list of the various sleep apnea treatments:

Try to lose weight

If your sleep apnea is caused by the fat in your neck collapsing your airway, making an effort to lose weight will reduce the occurrence of sleep apnea and time can stop it altogether.

One thing to definitely avoid is large meals before bed. Not only does this keep you awake as your body digests your food, since your body can’t use the food for energy, so it’s forced to store it as fat. If you feel hungry at night, it’s best to eat a small light snack that your body can digest quickly and easily.

Avoid alcohol, smoking and sleeping pills

All of these can cause sleep apnea or increase the number of sleep apnea episodes you have during the night.

Alcohol affects your quality of sleep by reducing the amount of time you spend in deep sleep, just like sleep apnea. It also causes your throat muscles to relax that little bit more, making you more at risk of sleep apnea.

Sleep Apnea TreatmentSmoking can cause your airways to become even narrower. And because nicotine is a stimulant, smoking too close to bed time will also reduce your sleep quality.

Sleeping pills can also cause your throat muscles to relax a little too much. They come with a whole host of nasty side effects that can impact your sleep.

Adjust your sleeping position

Some people find they only suffer from sleep apnea if they lie on their backs, so try lying on your side. Some people find it helps to use pillows against their back to make sure they don’t roll over in the night. You can buy special pillows to help with this.

You can also try elevating your bed. This works because the gravitational force downwards is reduced, lightening the load from your neck.

Strengthen your muscle tone

Strengthening your throat muscles will help keep your airway clear and reduce the frequency of sleep apnea during the night.

Breathing exercises such as the Buteyko breathing method, yoga and even playing a didgeridoo have all been shown to reduce sleep apnea.

Improve your sleep habits

Improving your sleep habits will help you make the very most out of your time asleep and help combat sleep deprivation.

For tips on how to improve your sleep schedule, getting a good sleep environment and learning how to relax quickly, see the article over at How to Sleep Better.

Use a CPAP machine

CPAP Machine

CPAP Machine
(CC by PruebasBMA)

CPAP stands for Continuous positive airway pressure. These machines blow compressed air through a tube that connects to a mask covering your nose and mouth.

The pressure from the air keeps your airways clear throughout the night, preventing sleep apnea episodes. They also reduce snoring.

Sleeping with a mask around your face can take a bit of getting used to, but most people report having much better sleep after a few nights’ use.

This CPAP machines article explains the various considerations you’ll want make when choosing a CPAP machine.

See your doctor

If you’re concerned about sleep apnea, getting an appointment with a doctor is the best course of action.

Your doctor will be able to run tests to tell for sure if you’re suffering from sleep apnea. They’ll talk with you about the various treatment options available to help reduce sleep apnea episodes or even stop it completely.

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Sleep apnea can have some pretty serious effects and can worsen with time. Sleep apnea has been known to cause serious health problems including high blood pressure, strokes and even heart attacks. Getting it sorted can give you a new lease of life, especially if you’re suffering from the effects of sleep deprivation because of it. So it’s well worth getting it sorted out sooner rather than later.