About Sleep Apnea – OSA

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder in which breathing stops or pauses during sleep. These episodes are called apneas, which mean “without breath”. To be called an “apneic event,” the pause between breaths will be 10 seconds or more. Once a diagnosis has been made, many people receive relief with a CPAP breathing machine, which is prescribed by their doctor.

Sleep apnea can be diagnosed at a clinic specializing in a sleep study called a polysomnogram. However, many people have this sleep disorder and the worrying symptoms that go with it, without knowing they actually have a sleep apnea. Sleep apnea may be brought to light when a sleeping partner becomes concerned about the pauses in breathing or complains about his or her loud snoring. Employers may notice that the individual is unusually sleepy and fatigued during the daytime, even though the sufferer is completely unaware of the nighttime sleep disturbance.

There are three different forms of sleep apnea:

  • Central sleep apnea is fairly rare, and is diagnosed during a sleep study when the breathing is interrupted by a “lack of effort”.

  • Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is by far the most common type, comprising in approximately 84% of patients with this type of sleep disorder. In obstructive sleep apnea, a physical block interrupts the airflow. It has been estimated that approximately 1 out of 5 American adults would be diagnosed with OSA if they were studied in a sleep lab, but the majority of these cases would be mild and cause little concern. Chronic and severe obstructive sleep apnea may, however, become a serious medical condition.
  • Complex sleep apnea is a combination of the previous two types.

Breathing problems experienced during sleep are common because the muscle tone of the body will relax as we fall asleep, and soft tissue in the airway may relax and collapse, cutting off the air supply. This often causes the individual to startle awake, creating an interrupted sleep pattern that leaves the patient tired, fatigued and sleepy during the daytime hours.

Dangerous Side Effects of Sleep Apnea

One of the most dangerous side effects of sleep apnea is the increased risk of car accidents. Studies have shown that driving tired is just as dangerous, if not more so, than driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Even if the sleep deprived person manages to stay awake while driving, their reaction times are decreased and judgment is impaired.

Cardiac issues have also been linked to lack of quality sleep. Without proper rest, the body doesn’t have down time to recuperate. The work of trying to breathe causes the pulse to speed up and the blood pressure to rise. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is responsible for the fight or flight response. Noradrenaline is released in response to external stimulus. It gives the body a burst of energy by constricting blood vessels which in turn raises blood pressure.

People who get their apnea under control find their blood pressures lower and they are able to lose weight when once it was impossible no matter how hard they tried. Their work performance dramatically improves and their short term memory increases.

Studies (New England Journal of Medicine 2005, Mayo Clinic) have found that in patients with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) there are more incidences of SNS activity even during waking hours. The body has less relaxation time to recover from the SNS activity. This puts a strain on the blood vessels causing heart disease and stroke. It has been found that OSA sufferers have enlarged hearts, but after six months of treatment with CPAP, the hearts of patients improved in size and function. This sleep apnea side effect can lead to arrhythmia and death.

People with sleep apnea are also at a higher risk of cardiac arrest in the night time hours. The time frame most associated with cardiac arrest in the general population is right after waking up until around noon. It is believed this is because the heart is most vulnerable right after prolonged rest. With sleep apnea patients, that time was reversed and over 50% of patients suffering cardiac arrest died between 10pm and 6am. It is thought that the decrease in oxygen levels and increase in carbon dioxide levels that apnea patients experience is responsible.

Sleep apnea affects the brain’s ability to function properly. Lack of sleep decreases cognitive learning, promotes short term memory loss, and impairs judgmental reasoning. Sufferers find simple work tasks difficult. They may receive bad work performances, and might even be fired. These symptoms can be so devastating in some that it is considered a Federal Social Security disability.

Obesity has been linked to sleep deprivation. Two hormones that regulate when we eat and how much we eat have been found to be out of balance in patients with sleep apnea. These hormones combined with the lack of energy to exercise results in weight gain, which can, in turn, contribute to a number of health problems.

Sleep apnea doesn’t just affect a person’s sleep, it affects their whole life and being. Personalities are altered and health is put at risk. Sleep apnea side effects are dangerous and life threatening. If a person is thought to have sleep apnea or another sleep disorder, it is imperative they seek help immediately.

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