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Sleep Apnea: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment Options

Sleep Apnea: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment Options

Sleep Apnea: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment Options

With 15 million snorers, it’s estimated that 78% of people in the UK sleep (or lie awake in frustration) next to someone who snores. 


Living with a heavy snorer can be difficult, and it’s estimated to be the second most common reason under ‘unreasonable behaviour’ in divorce filings in the UK. 


Snoring puts a strain on relationships, health, and wellbeing. However, treatment options do exist, so if snoring is driving you mad, read on. 


What is sleep apnea?


Sleep apnea (also spelled apnoea) is a type of sleep disorder characterised by abnormal breathing, choking noises, and very loud snoring. 


It causes very poor quality sleep as it is worse during REM sleep. During this phase of the sleep cycle the muscles relax (to prevent acting out dreams) which affects the skeletal and airway musculature. There are two types of sleep apnea:


- Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) - caused by a complete or partial obstruction of the upper airway by the throat muscle


- Central sleep apnea (CSA) - is less common than OSA and occurs when basic neurological controls for the breathing rate malfunction


What causes sleep apnea?


CSA is caused by a narrow, crowded, or collapsible upper airway and it is more likely to occur in men, aged over 65, with a previous history or stroke, arrhythmia, and atrial septal defects


Is sleep apnea hereditary? Sleep apnea has a variety of causes, and it can be genetic. It can occur in anyone, including children, however, it is most common in men aged over 40 years old. 


Some causes may be temporary, such as congestion from a head cold. Others can include:


- Nasal congestion


- Obesity


- Sleep position - especially back sleeping


- Smoking


- Alcohol - alcohol relaxes the throat and mouth muscles, and can exacerbate such breathing issues


- Ageing


- Hypothyroidism


- Family history 



The anatomy of the head and neck can also cause sleep apnea, with the following traits;


- Large neck


- Enlarged tonsils or tongue


- Narrow upper jaw


- Receding chin


- Narrowing of the nose or throat


- Nasal valve collapse


- Nasal septum deviation


- Elongated soft palate


- High arched palate


- Loss of teeth 


What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?

How do I know if I have sleep apnea? You may experience, or your partner may notice some, or all, of the following symptoms;



- Extremely loud snoring with pauses and gasps


- Shallow breathing


- Choking sounds


- Arousal in the middle of the night or early morning


- Excessive daytime sleepiness


- Irritability


- Waking up feeling unrefreshed


- Mood swings


- Forgetfulness


- Lack of concentration


- Lower sex drive 



What are the risks of sleep apnea?

OSA can be life threatening, as long pauses in breathing (up to 10 seconds) can cause hypoxia - or low blood oxygen. Sufferers of sleep apnea have an elevated risk of the following; 


- Car accidents


- Hypertension


- Cardiovascular disease


- Heart attack


- Stroke


- Arrhythmia 


- Insulin resistance


- Diabetes


- Cancer


- Severe reaction to COVID-19


- Alzheimer’s 


What does sleep apnea sound like?

Sleep apnea sounds like a pause in the breath followed by loud snoring. Snoring occurs when the throat relaxes and partially closes the airway, which then vibrates as the person breathes. This can be accompanied by shallow breathing and choking sounds. Sleep apnea reduces the quality of sleep for the snorer, and for the person who has to share a bed or room with them. 


Can sleep apnea be cured - and how to treat sleep apnea?

There are numerous treatments options for sleep apnea that can help manage or reduce symptoms - some are more invasive than others.

- Lifestyle changes - giving up or reducing smoking and alcohol


- Losing weight


- Side sleeping - check that your mattress and pillow offer optimum head and neck support


- Mouth guards to keep the airway clear


- Breathing devices such as CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) which involves sleeping with a mask on to keep the airway open


- Diaphragm pacing


- Circular breathing techniques


- Management of allergies


- Improved sleep hygiene - creating the optimum conditions for a better night’s sleep (routine, room temperature etc.)

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