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  • Writer's pictureDr. Bonnie Verhunce

Close-Up on Sleep Disorders: Sleep Apnea

Updated: Oct 2, 2019

Sleep apnea is much more than a “little snoring problem.” Sleep apnea is a common sleep

disorder that affects at least 18 million Americans and can significantly increase their risk of early death. It’s also associated with a range of daytime quality-of-life problems and nearly double the risk of some chronic diseases.

There are two main causes of sleep apnea—airway obstruction and problems with nerve impulses to the muscles that control breathing. Of these two causes, airway obstruction is the more common. An obstructed airway results in periods when breathing stops during sleep. This can occur hundreds of times each night, often lowering oxygen levels in the blood. If left untreated, this condition can lead to poor sleep quality, daytime sleepiness, reduced work performance, irritability and increased risk of accidents. Mounting evidence suggests that it may lead to far worse health consequences as well.

A Wake-Up Call from Johns Hopkins

Even those with mild to moderate sleep apnea may see an increase of up to 17% in their risk of death. A large-scale study recently conducted at Johns Hopkins University produced results that received a great deal of attention in the medical community. Over a period of 10 years, the researchers worked with more than 6,400 participants—men and women between the ages of 40 and 70, most of whom snored. The researchers monitored and recorded their sleep patterns as well as breathing, heart rhythms, and brain activity while sleeping. The results revealed that about half had moderate to severe sleep apnea.

Next, the Johns Hopkins researchers tracked those with sleep apnea over the next eight to ten years monitoring and recording the incidence of sickness and death. The main illnesses they found were high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease. They also made an alarming discovery: those men who experienced just 11 minutes of severe sleep apnea per night, in which blood oxygen levels dropped to below 90% of normal, had nearly double the risk of death. Since the study included so few female participants with severe sleep apnea, the effect of the condition on women remains less certain.

Whatever limitations their study may have had, the researchers at Johns Hopkins recognized how significant the findings were. "With such mounting evidence indicating the range of clinical effects of sleep apnea, awareness among health care professionals and the general community needs to increase," said study lead author Dr. Naresh Punjabi, an associate professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.

Who’s Most at Risk?

Demographically speaking, you are more likely to suffer from obstructive sleep apnea if you are male and over 60. From an anatomical point of view, you are also at higher risk if you are overweight, have a larger neck circumference, have a narrow or “crowded” airway or are prone to frequent nasal congestion. There are also a few behaviors that can raise your risk, including use of alcohol, sedatives or tranquilizers that relax throat muscles and smoking. People with a family history of sleep apnea should be particularly vigilant.

What to Look For:

Signs and symptoms of sleep apnea include two that are more likely to be noticed by someone other than the person who may have the condition:

  • Loud snoring

  • Uneven breathing patterns or short periods of time when breathing appears to stop

There are also several other signs and symptoms that someone may notice on their own throughout the night or during the day:

  • Sudden awakenings with shortness of breath or rapid breathing

  • Difficulty staying asleep

  • Morning dry mouth, sore throat and/or headache

  • Excessive sleepiness during the day

What can be done?

Anyone who is experiencing signs or symptoms of sleep apnea should start by discussing the situation with your medical provider. Depending on her or his assessment, the doctor may recommend a sleep study to collect information that can be used in diagnosing the patient’s condition. For some people, losing weight, cutting back on alcohol use and quitting smoking can help. For people with more serious cases of sleep apnea, a medical provider may recommend either a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) device that maintains airflow during sleep or surgery to create more space in the patient’s airway.

Given the potential seriousness of this condition, it’s very important for individuals who suspect that they have sleep apnea to get help. According to accumulating evidence, not only can treatment improve your quality of life, but it may save it as well!

Your overall health and wellness is the result of a combination of many factors, including the small lifestyle choices you make every day, especially about diet, exercise, sleep and stress management. As a chiropractic doctor, I work closely with our patients to add years to their life and life to their years. If you have specific concerns or questions about your own health, we encourage you to call or visit our office today. We’re here to help!

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