Signs You May Have Sleep Apnea (And Aren’t Aware!)

We all need a good night’s rest. Individuals who have healthy sleep routines often experience less sickness, have an easier time managing their weight, lower their risk for developing serious health issues such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, have increased energy levels, see a reduction in stress and other mental health issues, and have a better time managing their relationships. Sleep is vital to our mental, physical, and social health. However, a significant number of Americans suffer from an undiagnosed condition stealing their sleep and leaving them unrested.

The American Medical Association (AMA) estimates that approximately 30 million Americans have obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). However, only 6 million are diagnosed with this condition. That means millions of Americans are living right now with uncontrolled sleep apnea, and those numbers are conservative estimates. Whether due to the increase and awareness of this condition or the rising rate of obesity in America, diagnosis of sleep apnea is on the rise.

What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep Apnea is a sleep disorder characterized by the reduction or complete blockage of airflow in the throat during sleep. This condition is a serious disorder and should not be left untreated.

What is the Difference Between Snoring & Sleep Apnea?

Not everyone who snores has sleep apnea, but it does serve as a reliable indicator of the condition. Snoring refers to the hoarse or rattling noise made by an individual during breathing associated with sleep. It occurs through the vibration of the soft palate and other tissues in the mouth, nose, or throat. For those with sleep apnea, the closure or partial blockage of the airway causes snoring but also drops your oxygen levels. This reduction in oxygen triggers stress signals from the brain to the rest of the body.

What are the Symptoms of Sleep Apnea?

The most common symptom associated with sleep apnea is snoring, however, there are other signs that could indicate you have sleep apnea:

  • Feeling like you’re never getting enough sleep, despite your best efforts
  • Feeling tired or rundown early in the day
  • Restless legs or restless sleeping
  • Accidentally falling asleep during the day (at work, during movies, etc.)
  • Waking up multiple times at night
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Headaches in the morning
  • Sore throat or sinus issues (chronic sinusitis, etc.)
  • Difficulties with concentration or memory
  • Frequently going to the bathroom in the night

Symptoms for sleep apnea have a lot of variability from person to person. Some may be very loud snorers while others may not make any noise while sleeping. A concerning symptom to stay on the lookout for is any sign of disrupted breathing while sleeping. Sleep partners or roommates are often the first to notice disrupted breathing. If you’re concerned about your sleep, consider asking your partner if they’ve noticed anything abnormal.

What Should I Do if I Suspect I Have Sleep Apnea?

If your doctor suspects you may have sleep apnea, the first thing they’ll do is take a detailed medical history. Be ready to answer questions such as:

  • What symptom brought you in?
  • Has anyone ever told you that you snore?
  • Has anyone ever said they’ve seen you stop breathing while sleeping?
  • Do you wake up feeling like you’re gasping or choking?
  • What are your sleep habits? (How much sleep do you get, what does your sleep environment look like, etc.)

In certain instances,  more specific questions about lesser-known symptoms may be asked. They’ll look at difficulties with concentration or headaches, memory problems, fatigue, frequent nighttime urination, blood pressure issues, blood sugar issues as well as your family history. After your provider takes a detailed history, your doctor will likely perform a physical examination, looking at your mouth and airways to determine if there is any signs of narrowing.

Testing for sleep apnea has fortunately improved in recent years. A test that once would’ve required a visit to an overnight sleep laboratory can now be performed in the comfort and convenience of your own home. If at-home test results are inconclusive but your provider still has a high clinical suspicion of sleep apnea, they may order an in-lab study to confirm a diagnosis.

What is the Treatment for Sleep Apnea?

The gold-standard therapy for sleep apnea is the CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine. This technology uses gentle air pressure to ensure your airways remain open and unobstructed while you sleep. The CPAP machine automatically adjusts the pressure based on the patient’s needs throughout the night. For many of you, the CPAP machine may conjure images of a giant, loud machine beeping angrily while you sleep and a large, uncomfortable face mask reminiscent of a legendary Star Wars villain. Fortunately, thanks to scientific advancements, individuals with sleep apnea can benefit from a CPAP device that is both comfortable and highly functional.

Of course, while the CPAP machine is often a first-line treatment, it doesn’t work for everyone. Those with a case of mild sleep apnea could use a dental device, a device custom-made by a dentist to position the mouth and jaw in such a way that your airway is not obstructed overnight. Additionally, a reduction in body weight can possibly resolve a mild case of sleep apnea entirely. For those with a more severe form of sleep apnea who don’t tolerate the CPAP machine, a surgical implant for the throat called the upper airway stimulator can control the muscle tone of your airway.

There is a wide range of treatment options for those with sleep apnea. To understand which treatment is best for you, talk to a trusted pulmonologist and sleep specialist about your options.

Can You Prevent Sleep Apnea?

There are several factors that could increase your risk of developing sleep apnea.

  • Gender

Males, in general, are at a higher risk of sleep apnea than females. Females are protected by estrogen to a certain extent, however, as women enter menopause, the risk for developing sleep apnea is pretty equal between males and females.

  • Age

As we advance in age, we lose muscle tone throughout the body, including the airway.

  • Weight

For some, weight can play a factor in the severity of sleep apnea. However, while maintaining a healthy BMI can help some overcome their sleep apnea, it won’t prevent all forms of sleep apnea.

  • Natural Anatomical Differences

Some people are born with naturally smaller airways or are more likely to lose muscle tone. Jaw position may also play a factor in your sleep apnea. Overbites cause the jaw to recede further back, which can make it easier for the airway to close.

How Can I Get Started?

There are short-term and long-term consequences for uncontrolled sleep apnea, so don’t let yours go undiagnosed. If someone has told you that you snore, it’s probably a good idea to talk to your primary care provider about testing.

“The only way to know is through testing,” said Sabrina Brown, MSN, FNP-C of TPMG Lung and Sleep Specialists in Newport News, Virginia.

We all know what it feels like to not have good sleep. It impacts our ability to function at work, in school, in our relationships, and every other aspect of our lives. If you’re not getting the sleep you need to remain active and energized throughout the day, don’t delay. Talk to a TPMG Lung and Sleep Specialist about how you can get back to better sleep.

Sabrina Brown

About Sabrina Brown, MSN, FNP-C

Sabrina Brown, MSN, FNP, is a board certified family nurse practitioner with TPMG Lung and Sleep Specialists at Newport News. In her clinical practice, Sabrina enjoys treating conditions such as asthma, COPD, and sleep apnea. Working with her patients, Sabrina takes an individualized approach to help them control their symptoms, prevent further progression, and meet their health goals. She also has a special interest in community health education focusing on disease prevention and health promotion

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