Obstructive sleep apnea is a disorder that involves the cessation of breathing for 10 seconds or more at least five times per hour during sleep. It can be a mild problem or a life-threatening condition.
When people with this problem sleep, their muscles relax and upper airway tissues located in the back of their mouth and throat collapse, which blocks breathing. They awaken enough to begin breathing again, but may not wake up enough to realize what is happening. Some people also snore and choke. These symptoms may occur several hundred times a night, which prevents people from getting the deep stage sleep they need.
The consequences can be severe. People with this disorder may experience extreme daytime sleepiness and are at significantly higher risk for car accidents than other people. They also are at higher risk for developing high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, including heart failure. Those with co-existing heart and lung conditions, anxiety, depression, acid reflux, chronic fatigue, headaches, and diabetes often see improvement in these health problems when their sleep apnea is treated.
At high risk
An estimated 20 million Americans have some degree of sleep apnea, but only 500,000 are receiving appropriate care. Risk factors include:
Male gender: Men are twice as likely as women to have sleep apnea. One reason for the difference between genders is thought to be related to female hormones having a somewhat protective effect against sleep-disordered breathing. This protection diminishes with menopause, but women should not necessarily go on hormone replacement therapy (HRT). They should discuss HRT with their physician.
Obesity: Fat deposits in the upper airway cause further narrowing, contributing to increased risk of developing symptoms of apnea. However, not everyone who is overweight has sleep apnea, and people who are thin may have the disorder.
Neck size: A thick neck may narrow a person’s airway. A collar size of 17 inches or more in men and 16 inches or more in women are associated with an increased risk for obstructive sleep apnea.
High blood pressure: Many people with high blood pressure have sleep apnea. There are many causes of high blood pressure, and the contribution of untreated sleep apnea is well known. Events that occur during an apnea place more burden on the heart and blood vessels. The two major events involved include an increase in activity of the part of the nervous system that uses adrenaline-like substances, and the temporary decrease in oxygen levels that occurs until an apnea is resolved. These and other factors are significantly related to the increased cardiovascular risks such as high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes.
Family history: People whose family members have sleep apnea are at increased risk for the condition.
Smoking: Smokers are at higher risk because smoking can cause inflammation and fluid retention in the upper airway.
Get more information
To learn more about obstructive sleep apnea, join triple board-certified sleep specialist, Lynn Nichols, M.D. for January’s Health Night on the Town program. Health Night will take place on Tuesday, January 30 at 7 p.m. in the Ridge Conference Room of Methodist Medical Center located at 990 Oak Ridge Turnpike. This program is part of Methodist Medical Center’s continuing Health Night on the Town series. Programs are free of charge and open to the public.