Left untreated, your health can suffer

Imagine if you had trouble breathing 30 times an hour while you were awake, causing you to lose your breath, choke and cough. You’d likely rush to your closest emergency room in a panic. For as many as one in 15 people, this is exactly what happens to them while they sleep. The condition is called sleep apnea, and it can lead to a range of serious health issues if left untreated.

Unfortunately, many cases do go untreated, simply because the person suffering from sleep apnea has no idea they’re dealing with such a serious medical condition.

"Many of our patients come in because a bed partner or roommate notices snoring and disrupted sleep," explained Dr. Sreelatha Naik, Geisinger sleep physician. "However, many patients are referred to us by cardiologists and other specialists that recognize some of the effects of sleep apnea, such as heart disease and stroke. Recognizing the symptoms early can help you get treatment before the related health issues go from bad to worse."

The common signs of sleep apnea

Although you may not know you have sleep apnea — since you’re sleeping or nearly sleeping when it happens — there are some clues that you should watch for:

  • Sleepiness: Waking up feeling tired no matter how much sleep you’ve had, feeling sleepy during the day and dozing off behind the wheel while driving.
  • Snoring: Very loud snoring that wakes up your bed partner.
  • Gasping and choking: Waking up feeling short of breath, gasping for air or with the sensation that you’re choking.
  • Feeling bad when you wake up: Morning headaches, dry throat and mouth, and a severely sore throat in the morning.
  • Difficulty sleeping: Waking up frequently, feeling restless at night and insomnia. This is especially a presenting symptom in women.
  • Cognitive and mood changes: Memory problems, anxiety, depression and loss of interest in sex.

There are two types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea.

The most common of the two types, obstructive sleep apnea, is caused by a complete or partial blockage of the airway. Risk factors for obstructive sleep apnea include being male, over 40 or overweight, and having a large neck and tonsils. People with gastroesophageal reflux (GERD), a family history of sleep apnea and nasal obstruction are also at risk.

Central sleep apnea occurs when the nerves that control the breathing rhythm fails to transmit signals to your breathing muscles. Those who are using certain opiate medications, have had heart failure, or have experienced prior stroke are at risk for more complex sleep apnea.

What happens if you have sleep apnea?

"Recognizing the type of sleep apnea and getting the proper treatment is very important," said Dr. Naik. "Otherwise, it may cause a range of problems such as heart disease, stroke and even traffic accidents."

Resulting health problems include:

  •  Heart failure
  •  Arrhythmia, such as Afib or heart flutters
  •  Heart attack
  •  Stroke
  •  High blood pressure
  •  Diabetes
  •  Headaches
  •  Cognitive issues

Treatment options vary depending on the severity of symptoms and type of sleep apnea. A CPAP machine, which delivers air through a mask worn over the nose or mouth to keep the windpipe open when you sleep, is the most effective form of treatment for obstructive sleep apnea. Alternate treatments, such as dental devices worn during sleep to reposition the tongue and jaw, or nasal devices such as Provent Therapy, have demonstrated variable successes. Losing weight, changing your sleeping position and practicing good sleep habits are also beneficial.

Most surgical procedures have poor success in treating obstructive sleep apnea; however, one surgical procedure that is effective, but rather invasive, is called maxillomandibular advancement.

"Some people find a CPAP machine uncomfortable," said Dr. Naik. "This may be the result of a more complicated breathing problem than obstructive sleep apnea, which can make it difficult to use a traditional CPAP. For this reason, it is extremely important to follow-up with your sleep physician for regular monitoring if you are on a CPAP. Advancing technology allows sleep physicians to track your breathing, including every breath you take while using the CPAP at home, through internet-based systems to help treat you better."

If you think you have sleep apnea, talk to your doctor about the treatment option that may be right for you.

Dr. Sreelatha Naik, MD, is fellowship trained in sleep medicine, pulmonary medicine and critical care. She sees patients at Geisinger Wyoming Valley and Geisinger South Wilkes-Barre in Wilkes-Barre. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Naik or another Geisinger sleep physician, please call 570-275-6401 or visit Geisinger.org.

Man in bed