Mention snoring and everyone will have a story to tell about being kept awake or keeping others awake. But besides rattling the room, snoring can be a telltale sign of a more serious problem called obstructive sleep apnea.
With its notable breathing pauses and disruptive sleep, obstructive sleep apnea is estimated to affect 10 percent of men and 4 percent of women between the ages of 35 and 65. It is caused by a collapse of the muscles in the back of the throat (upper portion of the airway) while asleep. This area is prone to collapse because it is held open only by muscle without any bony or solid structure. All of our muscles relax while asleep at night so a collapse occurs in all individuals. If the airway is crowded or narrowed to begin with, then that collapse results in a blockage. When you try to breathe in air, it can’t get through.
Typical signs include sleepiness, un-refreshing sleep, morning headaches, trouble maintaining sleep, heart burn at night or morning, and sweating while asleep.
Untreated sleep apnea is a serious risk factor for cardiovascular disease, such as high blood pressure, stroke and heart attack. During sleep apnea episodes, which are typically characterized by loud snoring then gasps for breath, a drop in oxygen signals a stressful situation for your body, causing the heart to beat faster and blood pressure to rise. It’s as if your body is reacting to a stressful event even though you’re asleep.
Over the years, treatments for sleep apnea have improved. CPAP, or continuous positive airway pressure, is effective. A CPAP machine blows a continuous stream of air into your airway, keeping it open while you sleep.
For those who can’t tolerate a CPAP machine, there is a new minimally invasive breathing device that was recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The surgery involves implanting a pacemaker-like device in a patient’s chest just underneath the skin that senses the breathing cycle and stimulates a nerve in the tongue, helping keep the tongue down and the airway open. It requires only three small incisions – in the neck and chest. When the patient goes to sleep at night, all he or she has to do is press a button on a hand-held device to activate the sensor.
If you are concerned that you may have sleep apnea, a sleep study is the only way to confirm the diagnosis. Talk to your doctor about the signs you’re experiencing and the pros and cons of treatments. Sleep apnea can be managed, especially now with new treatments that are helping millions of sufferers get restorative sleep.
Dr. Jonathan Pomerantz is an otolaryngologist and director of adult sleep surgery with NorthShore University HealthSystem.