Sleep apnea is one of the most common sleep problems in the world today.
The American Sleep Apnea Association estimates that around 22 million Americans suffer from this condition, although only an estimated 1 in 5 of all moderate to severe cases are actually diagnosed.
Sleep apnea’s effects can bleed into pretty much every area of your life.
The loss in sleep quality alone leads to all kinds of problems in everyday functioning, and sleep apnea in particular comes with a number of other nasty impacts on your health.
Here are the best ways to go about treating sleep apnea.
What Is Sleep Apnea?
Before we begin, let’s first lay out some basic definitions.
Sleep apnea is a condition marked by repeated pauses in breathing during sleep.
There are two main kinds of sleep apnea, each of which requires a very different kind of treatment.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea
The most common form, obstructive sleep apnea (OBS), occurs when the muscles as the back of your throat become too relaxed during sleep.
This means they’re no longer supporting the soft palate and keeping it open the way they’re supposed to, causing it to sag across your windpipe while you sleep.
This leads to restriction in airflow when breathing in, making it impossible for your lungs to get enough oxygen.
When this happens, your brain freaks out and shakes you awake just long enough for you to suck in a breath, before allowing you to fall back asleep.
This can happen over 30 times per hour.
However, because the periods of wakefulness are so brief, most people don’t actually have any memory of these episodes upon waking.
But what sleep apnea patients do suffer from is a major loss in sleep quality.
These constant interruptions make it impossible for your brain to progress through the necessary stages of deep sleep.
These stages are where all the most important restorative effects of sleep kick in – and without being able to feel these effects, it’s almost as if you never went to sleep at all.
You might sleep for a solid 9 hours, but wake up feeling just as exhausted as when you went to bed!
Central Sleep Apnea
Obstructive sleep apnea cases make up the vast majority of all reported sleep apnea incidents.
The other form of this condition is known as central sleep apnea (CSA).
This is often a more difficult problem to treat, since it’s a much less mechanically-based concern.
Instead, CSA results from your brain not sending enough signals to your muscles for you to keep breathing while you sleep.
As in OSA, this makes your brain start freaking out pretty quickly, so it shakes you awake so you can breathe.
Unlike OSA patients, however, individuals suffering from CSA often have trouble falling back asleep after they’ve been woken up.
So while the good news is that you’ll know when you have the condition, the bad news is that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.
What Groups Are At Risk?
Although sleep apnea can occur in pretty much anyone, regardless of demographics, there are a number of factors that increase your odds of having it.
Men, for instance, are around two to three times more likely to suffer from sleep apnea than women.
Additionally, around 2/3 of individuals with sleep apnea are overweight or obese, and the greater the circumference of your neck, the greater your chances of developing issues.
Sleep apnea troubles are most likely to start manifesting themselves as you age, especially if you a history with drugs like cigarettes, alcohol, or sedatives.
CSA in particular is more likely if you’ve had a stroke, have a heart disorder, or are using narcotic pain medications.
OSA, meanwhile, has more of a hereditary basis – so if one or both of your parents had sleep apnea, there’s a good chance you will, too.
Lifestyle Changes to Avoid OSA
At least when it comes to OSA, there are, thankfully, a number of lifestyle changes you can make to either avoid sleep apnea altogether or reduce your symptoms of it if you’ve already started feeling some effects.
For some, the easiest change to make is to just switch up your sleeping position.
Sleeping on your back, for instance, means that your neck muscles have to work extra hard to keep your soft oral tissues from drooping into your windpipe.
Switching positions to your side or stomach can cut down your symptoms literally overnight!
Other lifestyle changes you can make involve increasing the amount of exercise you’re getting, especially if this can help you lose weight.
Getting at least 30 minutes of exercise every day is a great way to start, and you can just see what works best for you from there.
Losing weight in general has been shown to reduce or even eliminate sleep apnea symptoms, while gaining weight can make things much worse.
Drugs such as alcohol or other sedatives like prescription sleeping pills can also cause your palate to relax more than you want it to, exacerbating OSA symptoms.
Additionally, quitting smoking is another tried-and-true method for reducing sleep apnea’s effects.
CPAP and Other Airway Pressure Devices
Another option for treating but OSA and CSA is through continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP).
By providing a continuous stream of air pressure through your mouth to your lungs, CPAP machines reduce the amount of work your throat muscles have to do to keep your soft palate from falling out of place.
Not only does this directly alleviate symptoms of OSA, but keeping your soft tissues in check can prevent triggering CSA, as well.
Proper use of a CPAP machine involves strapping over your head a mask with a tube attached to it hooked up to a pump.
The main disadvantage of this method is that many people at least initially find CPAP masks uncomfortable, and may experience reduced amounts of sleep over the first few days of use.
After a little while, though, this discomfort will fade, and you’ll likely find yourself waking up better-rested than you have in a long, long time!
If symptoms persist after you’ve turned to CPAP, your physician might instruct you to try out other, slightly more powerful devices like auto-CPAP or bilevel positive airway pressure (BPAP).
These are pretty similar in function and feel to regular old CPAP.
Additional CSA Treatments
In addition to airway pressure devices, a couple additional options are available to individuals suffering from CSA.
Some prescription medications, for instance, have been known to reduce CSA symptoms in certain people.
Additionally, other health conditions are often the root cause of CSA – so taking care of these is often the most effective option.
CSA patients also have a couple other devices similar to CPAP at their disposal if the CPAP mask isn’t working, but their effects are all pretty similar.
Additional OSA Treatments
OSA patients also have a few more options open to them if for whatever reason CPAP or similar devices haven’t been working.
All of these options involve surgery or something similar.
Tissue shrinkage and tissue removal, for instance, involve simply reducing the amount of tissue at the back of your throat.
This makes it much more difficult for your soft palate to droop so far as to obstruct airflow.
Tissue removal involves a surgeon literally going in and removing a certain amount of flesh from your throat and soft palate.
Tissue shrinkage, meanwhile, just involves zapping your throat with some energy beams until it shrivels up to acceptable levels.
Neither of these techniques, is likely to cure severe sleep apnea cases, and they are all about on par with CPAP in terms of effectiveness.
Unless you find yourself simply unable to sleep while wearing a CPAP mask, these methods are unlikely to prove super helpful.
Another option is weight loss surgery, which helps free up the windpipe by simply reducing the amount of flesh your neck muscles are having to support.
A more extreme option, meanwhile, is known as “jaw repositioning.”
This involves moving your jaw forward in your face, and thereby opening up additional space for your throat and soft palate.
Some surgeons have also tried implanting plastic rods into the soft palate itself, thereby forcing the airway to stay open.
Unfortunately, more research is needed on a lot of these options to fully understand their associated risks and effectiveness.
To wrap it up, one final option is also available to individuals facing extreme, life-threatening obstructive sleep apnea.
This is called a tracheostomy, and involves literally punching out a second hole in your throat and inserting a tube allowing you to breathe.
Although the tube is kept covered during the day, at night the cover is taken off and you breathe through the hole in your throat.
You’ve just read a number of the most common sleep apnea treatments available today.
Obviously, your health professional ultimately knows best about what options are most viable for certain individuals.
Although many can be hesitant to visit a professional about sleep issues – particularly issues you don’t even remember experiencing – sleep apnea is a serious health concern and must be dealt with accordingly.
Treatment is available.
You just need to seek it.