By Glenn Ellis
Sleep apnea is a common condition in the United States. It can occur when the upper airway becomes blocked repeatedly during sleep, reducing or completely stopping airflow. This is known as obstructive sleep apnea. If the brain does not send the signals needed to breathe, the condition may be called central sleep apnea.
In some cases, this pause in breathing (called apnea) can last 10 seconds or longer and it can occur 30 times or more in an hour. And despite the condition being common, it often goes undiagnosed because many of the symptoms — such as loud snoring, gasping for air, and interruptions in breathing — occur during sleep, when individuals may not even realize what’s happening.
What makes the under-diagnosis of sleep apnea so problematic is that the condition, if untreated, can lead to numerous health problems, including cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and even increased risk of sudden death. And because this sleep disorder is associated with chronic daytime sleepiness, it has been found to be the cause of a number of devastating industrial and transportation accidents.
Common sleep apnea signs and symptoms are snoring or gasping during sleep; reduced or absent breathing, called apnea events; and sleepiness. Undiagnosed or untreated sleep apnea prevents restful sleep and can cause complications that may affect many parts of your body.
Sleep apnea can be caused by a person’s physical structure or medical conditions. These include obesity, large tonsils, endocrine disorders, neuromuscular disorders, heart or kidney failure, certain genetic syndromes, and premature birth.
Here are some of the reasons that each of these conditions can contribute to sleep apnea:
Obesity is a common cause of sleep apnea in adults. People with this condition have increased fat deposits in their necks that can block the upper airway.
Large tonsils may contribute to sleep apnea, because they narrow the upper airway.
Disorders of the endocrine system can produce hormones that can affect sleep-related breathing. The following are examples of endocrine disorders associated with sleep apnea:
- Hypothyroidism: People with this condition have low levels of thyroid hormones. This affects the part of the brain that controls breathing, as well as the nerves and muscles used to breathe. People with hypothyroidism can also be diagnosed with obesity, which can cause sleep apnea.
- Acromegaly: People with this condition have high levels of growth hormone. This condition is associated with changes in the facial bones, swelling of the throat, and an increased size of the tongue. These changes can obstruct the upper airway and lead to sleep apnea.
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS): Sleep apnea is also seen in women with PCOS, an endocrine condition that causes large ovaries and prevents proper ovulation. PCOS is also associated with being overweight and obesity, which can cause sleep apnea.
Neuromuscular conditions interfering with brain signals to airway and chest muscles can cause sleep apnea. Some of these conditions are stroke and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
Sleep apnea is commonly found in people who have advanced heart or kidney failure. These patients may have fluid build-up in their neck, which can obstruct the upper airway and cause sleep apnea.
Genetic syndromes that affect the structure of the face or skull, particularly syndromes that cause smaller facial bones or cause the tongue to sit farther back in the mouth, may cause sleep apnea. These genetic syndromes include cleft lip and Down syndrome.
Premature babies born before 37 weeks of pregnancy have a higher risk for breathing problems during sleep. In most cases, the risk decreases as the brain matures.
It’s estimated that nearly 30 million people in the United States have sleep apnea. Published data suggests that the disorder is significantly more prevalent in men, affecting approximately 14 percent of males and 5 percent of females. For reasons that are still not clear, in the United States, sleep apnea is more common among blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans than whites.
If you are diagnosed with sleep apnea, your doctor may make recommendations to help you maintain an open airway during sleep. These could include healthy lifestyle changes or a breathing device such as a positive airway pressure (PAP) machine, mouthpiece, or implant. Talk to your doctor. Depending on the type and severity of your sleep apnea and your needs and preferences, other treatments may be possible.
Sleep apnea can affect anyone at any age, even children. Untreated sleep apnea may be responsible for poor performance in everyday activities, such as at work and school, motor vehicle crashes, and academic underachievement in children and adolescents.
If you have been diagnosed with sleep apnea, it is important that you adopt and maintain healthy lifestyle habits and use your prescribed treatment.
Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.
Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!
The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.
Glenn Ellis is a health columnist and radio commentator who lectures, nationally and internationally on health related topics. Listen to Glenn, on radio in Birmingham or V94.9, Sundays at 7:50pm, or visit: www.glennellis.com.