Between the Sheets

Do you ever feel like you didn’t sleep a wink, even when you’re certain you got eight hours of rest the night before?  Do you wake up in the middle of the night, gasping for breath? Does your partner regularly tease you for snoring loud enough to rattle the windows? If so, you might be suffering from sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is defined as obstructed breathing that lasts for 10 seconds or more. Obstructed breathing can be when you stop breathing all together, or when you take in less than 10% of normal breath. This air deficiency could cause frequent waking, or could pull you from a deep sleep state into a more shallow form of rest. A night of shallow sleep can feel more like a post-lunch nap, and can lead to exhaustion, confusion, and rapid mood swings. According to the Mayo Clinic, complications from sleep apnea include daytime fatigue, high blood pressure or heart problems, a greater risk for diabetes type 2, mood irregularity, and liver problems.

Medical professionals separate sleep apnea into three distinct types:

  • Obstructive, caused by relaxed throat muscles. Older individuals, smokers, people with nasal congestion, and heavier people are most likely to experience this type of apnea.
  • Central sleep apnea, which is when the brain doesn't send proper signals to the muscles that control breathing. People with heart disorders, opioid users, and stroke survivors are most likely to be diagnosed with this type.
  • Complex sleep apnea, which includes elements of both obstructive and central sleep apnea.

Diagnosis begins with a trip to pulmonologist or sleep specialist, to gather essential information from sleep study observations. These studies involve staying overnight in the controlled setting of a sleep clinic, where a patient is observed, and electrodes monitor oxygen levels, heart rate, sleep interruptions, REM state, unexpected movements, and more. Doctors look for multiple interruptions during a two- hour stretch of time, or a 4% drop in blood-level oxygen for a diagnosis of sleep apnea.

A number of treatment options can provide both immediate and long-term relief. These include lifestyle changes, like smoking cessation and weight loss, medical interventions like adenoid and tonsil removal, and medical equipment like CPAP (Continuous Positive Air Pressure) machines to improve airflow and encourage airways to remain open. The National Sleep Foundation reports that CPAP machines are effective at improving air circulation in apnea patients, and that regular use of CPAP reduces symptoms such as snoring, daytime confusion, and exhaustion. Most patients are happy to work through the initial discomfort of wearing the required nasal mask for the reward of more restful, uninterrupted sleep.

If the symptoms of sleep apnea sound too familiar, make an appointment with your physician to explore options for diagnosis. With healthy lifestyle changes, you’ll soon feel like someone enjoying 40 winks of sleep, instead of 25.

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