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How to know if you have sleep apnea

Even if you get enough sleep, if it feels like you’re constantly exhausted throughout the day or you often wake up with a headache, you may have a sleep problem like sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is quite prevalent and, if ignored, may lead to major health issues. It’s crucial to me as a sleep medicine expert to not only inform my patients about the potentially significant danger that sleep apnea poses to their general health, but also to provide them the sleep apnea treatment choices that are most suitable for their individual circumstances.

What is sleep apnea?

A person who has sleep apnea stops breathing while they are asleep. These pauses may occur up to 400 times during the course of the night and can range anywhere from a few seconds to more than a minute. Although they may sometimes rouse someone awake, they can also go unnoticed.

Obstructive sleep apnea is the most prevalent kind of the condition. It takes place when a person is sleeping and their tongue or other throat tissues restrict their airway. This restricts or halts airflow, making it more difficult to breathe.

Why is it such a big deal?

Even a small breathing pause may generate loud snoring and disturb sleep. You experience daytime fatigue or irritability as a result. But I let my patients know that sometimes the repercussions go far beyond.

The body is deprived of oxygen by sleep apnea. When tissues are harmed by germs, trauma, toxins, heat, or any other reason, including not enough oxygen, the body’s immune system responds by causing inflammation. This reduced percentage of oxygen in the blood may make inflammation levels worse. The body then secretes substances that lead to swelling by causing blood vessels to leak fluid into tissues.

Chronic inflammation is different from short-lived (acute) inflammation. Chronic inflammation may cause major, long-lasting health issues. Chronic inflammation has been connected to sleep apnea. It may thus increase the risk for: Heart disease; high blood pressure; and other conditions if it is not managed.

How to know if you have sleep apnea

Am I in danger?

People of various ages, even those who are otherwise healthy, have sleep apnea, as do I. However, as you age, the danger does increase. Age-related anatomical changes in the brain affect how we breathe while we sleep. One explanation for the increased likelihood of sleep apnea with aging is this.

Another explanation might be that as we become older, our tongues and necks tend to accumulate more fatty tissue.

Additionally, people are at risk for sleep apnea if they: 

  • Have high blood pressure 
  • Use sedatives or alcohol 
  • Have specific physical characteristics, such as big tonsils or nasal polyps 
  • Have a large neck circumference 
  • Are obese

What are the sleep apnea warning signs?

There are a few sleep apnea signs that I repeatedly see. Patients often seek my advice concerning issues like: 

  • Extremely loud snoring
  • Making gasping or choking sounds. These might be so loud that they wake you up. Other times, it can be your bedmate or roommate who pays attention.
  • Constantly being worn out or waking up with a headache. Breathing pauses might prevent you from falling asleep and keep you awake throughout the day. Oxygen levels fall, carbon dioxide levels rise, and blood vessels enlarge when your airway is blocked. Morning headaches might result from this.
  • Having difficulties focusing, feeling agitated or sad, or both. It’s crucial to get adequate sleep for your mental and emotional well-being. Lack of sleep may impair your memory, learning, and thinking processes.

What Takes Place in Your Body and Throat to Cause Sleep Apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea, which is the most prevalent type, is brought on by the throat muscles and the soft tissues in the back of the throat, including the tonsils, tongue, and adenoids (the tissue that sits just behind the nose high up in the throat), relaxing too much while you sleep, repeatedly obstructing the upper airway. Children’s adenoids, which are tissues located high in the throat, function as a kind of germ-trap. By the time people reach their teen years, they typically decrease.

Although not everyone who snores has sleep apnea, those who have it often snore excessively.

The brain alerts your body to breathe as soon as it detects that you are not obtaining enough oxygen. A person with obstructive sleep apnea will make a snort, cough, gasping, or choking sound before they resume breathing normally.

How to know if you have sleep apnea

Central sleep apnea is a different, far less frequent kind of sleep apnea that develops when your brain fails to correctly communicate with the breathing muscles, according to MedlinePlus.

People with illnesses like a brain infection, stroke, heart failure, or those who use specific medications like opioids or benzodiazepines are more likely to experience it.

According to a paper published in October 2016 in Chest, a combination of both obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea is referred to as complex sleep apnea syndrome, which is the third form of sleep apnea.

The basic causes of this kind of apnea are still unknown, although it is a disorder that has just lately been recognized.

When should you ask for assistance?

It might be challenging to diagnose sleep apnea on your own. And it’s simple to attribute the problem on weariness, headaches, irritability, stress, or another factor. It’s crucial to see a sleep expert if you constantly feel weary despite going to bed at a regular hour or if your roommate or sleeping partner complains about your snoring.

When a patient describes symptoms that resemble sleep apnea, I do a physical examination first. Checking for risk factors like the ones I just listed is often part of it.

Final thoughts

Even though the interruptions are typically so brief that most people don’t even realize they’ve been awakened during the night, this chronic disruption of the normal sleep cycle can leave people feeling exhausted and sleepy during the day and put them at increased risk for health problems associated with lack of sleep and with reduced blood oxygen levels during sleep, such as irritability, problems with memory or concentration, anxiety, and depression.

More to read: Is Your CPAP Causing Problems with Your Teeth?