What Is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a potentially serious sleep disorder where a person’s breathing is involuntarily stopped while they are sleeping. There are many symptoms of sleep apnea and it can be dangerous, especially to those over age 40. There are three main types of sleep apnea:
- Obstructive sleep apnea – In this form of sleep apnea, the muscles of the throat relax in a way that blocks airflow. This is the most common type of sleep apnea.
- Central sleep apnea – This type of sleep apnea is caused by the brain not sending the signals that tell the body to breathe.
- Complex sleep apnea syndrome – This is a combination of both obstructive and central sleep apnea.
Since obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is 80–90% of all cases, this post will mostly focus on OSA.
If you have any symptoms, be sure to see your doctor.
Take the Sleep Apnea Quiz
Please note that this is just a starting point and that these signs of sleep apnea are not a conclusive diagnosis.
Do you have any of these symptoms?
- Unusually high drowsiness during the day—even when you’ve slept enough
- Inability to stay asleep
- A feeling of constant tiredness
- Not feeling rested in the morning
- Sore throat and dry mouth when you wake up
Do you have one or more of these attributes?
- Do you wake up in the night with shortness of breath or a choking sound?
- Has someone else heard or seen you snoring loudly or stopping breathing during sleep?
Do you have any of these other problems?
- Being easily frustrated, upset, or irritated
- Waking frequently to go to the restroom
- Lost ability to concentrate
- Lost or lowered sex drive
- Increased memory problems
- Headaches in the morning
- Nasal polyposis (polyps)
- Deviated septum
- Overbite or recessed jaw
- Enlarged tonsils or tongue
- A neck circumference of 16–17 inches or more
Do you have one or more of these related medical issues?
- Irregular heart rate
- Type 2 diabetes
- Heart problems, including past heart attacks, congestive heart failure, or coronary artery disease
- Past strokes
- Psychological problems, such as mood disorders, depression, or bipolar disorder
- High blood pressure
It’s important to talk to your doctor. A medical professional can recommend a sleep study for a proper diagnosis.
Who Is Most at Risk for Sleep Apnea?
While it is possible for anyone to get sleep apnea, these demographics are the most at risk:
- People who are overweight
- People with a large neck (16 inches or more)
- Those with large tonsils
- People who have a family history of sleep apnea
Complications Caused by Sleep Apnea
To survive, we need food at least every three weeks, and water every three days. But air? Three minutes or less. So, sleep apnea can be quite serious. We’re increasingly at risk of it as we age past 40—as if turning 40 wasn’t bad enough, right?
Complications caused by sleep apnea include:
- Heart and blood pressure problems: The frequent stops in breathing put people’s cardiovascular systems under intense stress, leading to higher risk of heart attacks, high blood pressure, and abnormal heartbeats. But if someone has heart disease already, the oxygen deprivation from repeated apneas can lead to death!
- Type 2 diabetes: Sleep apnea, if untreated, could contribute to developing type 2 diabetes.
- Severe daytime sleepiness: Because people repeatedly fall asleep and wake again—often without remembering—they may then fall asleep during the day while working or driving! They may also be irritable or depressed. And children’s grades may drop.
- Sleep-deprived partners: Sleep apnea can cause loud snoring that disrupts the sleep of a spouse or partner.
- Liver disease: It has also been linked to liver function problems and liver scarring.
- Metabolic syndrome: This condition includes high blood pressure and blood sugar, abdominal obesity, and cholesterol problems, which can lead to stroke and heart attack.
- Negative reactions to medication and surgery: Sleep apnea can cause people to react poorly to certain medications and to anesthesia. It can cause complications during recovery from surgery (when you’re lying on your back asleep).
Older adults aren’t the only people at risk of sleep apnea — younger adults and children can get sleep apnea from nasal congestion, an inherited narrow throat or small neck, or a family history of sleep apnea. And people of all ages are more at risk if they are obese, smokers, users of alcohol, sedatives, or narcotic medications, or survivors of heart disorders or stroke.
Let’s Get a Formal Medical Diagnosis
Although you can sometimes self-diagnose sleep apnea, it’s highly recommended that you get a professional diagnosis. Our questions above should only be a starting point. If you want to get a real medical diagnosis of sleep apnea, your doctor will usually give you two options:
- Visit a sleep disorder center: Here, a sleep specialist will monitor your sleep all night long using equipment to record your sleeping breathing rates, leg and arm movements, oxygen levels, and brain, heart, and lung activity. This tends to be the most reliable method of diagnosing sleep apnea.
- Simplified home monitoring: Your doctor could instead send portable monitoring equipment home with you to measure your breathing, oxygen levels, and heart rate. This equipment will help find out if your blood oxygen level suddenly drops during the night and then rises again during apneas.
If you’re lucky, your doctor might prescribe a treatment just from a home study, but it might not be enough. You might have to go to the sleep disorder center after all. But the in-crowd are all doing it, anyway, and just a single night of monitoring will prove if you have it or not. So, rest easy.
How Is Sleep Apnea Treated?
After you’re diagnosed, what kind of treatment is likely coming your way? It’s actually not too bad. With a positive diagnosis in hand, your doctor can prescribe one or more of the following:
- Weight loss: This can cure sleep apnea outright or improve the outcomes of other treatments.
- Sleep position changes: Changing your sleeping position can help with sleep apnea. Some people only suffer from sleep apnea when they sleep on their back, so switching to side sleeping can help. If you want tips for sleeping on your side, check out our side sleeper guide.
- Behavioral strategies: This can include quitting alcohol and tobacco or using a nasal decongestant at night. All good stuff.
- Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT): A therapist can help you stop thoughts or actions that are disrupting either your sleep itself or your sleep apnea treatment. Hey, we’ve all been meaning to start therapy some time!
- CPAP: This is a machine that gently keeps a patient’s airway open during the night. It’s just awesome.
- Oral appliance: This is a device that helps people who have milder sleep apnea who don’t like the CPAP machine. It’s fitted by a dentist, so start flossing now. It will be fitted by a dentist.
- Surgery: This actually doesn’t work that well, but it’s a last resort if the CPAP or oral appliance doesn’t work for you.
Remember, this post is focused mostly on obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)—the most common type. If you have central or complex sleep apnea, your doctor may still treat you for OSA with a CPAP, oral appliance, or something else, which will still improve your sleep, and discuss other options with you.
5 Tips to Increase Your Energy If You Have Sleep Apnea
There are a few lifestyle changes for people with sleep apnea that, along with treatment from your doctor, may help you to have more energy throughout the day. Here are a few:
- Try sleeping on your side – People with only moderate sleep apnea can notice a significant improvement from just changing your sleep position.
- Try insomnia treatments – Sleep apnea can contribute to insomnia. If you’re experiencing insomnia, ask your doctor for advice on how to deal with it. Some popular recommendations are reducing caffeine, avoiding screens and getting out of bed to do a calming activity if you’re having trouble falling asleep.
- Change your diet – Eliminating overly sugary foods such as soda and candy and replacing them with fruits and vegetables can help you to feel more consistent energy throughout the day.
- Drink water – Staying hydrated throughout the day has the potential to reduce your sleep apnea at night, which in turn can help you feel more rested when you wake up.
- Exercise – Working out, although it may sound tiring, can help reduce fatigue and will also help you sleep better at night.
Is Sleep Apnea Treatment Covered by Insurance?
Good news! Most insurance providers, including Medicare Part B, will pay for a sleep study ordered by a doctor—a full test in a sleep lab or a home test. Just call them first to make sure your policy covers it: Let them know the type of test you’re getting, and find out how much you’ll have to pay yourself.
If you get diagnosed with sleep apnea, most insurance will also pay for whatever devices and accessories you need. They’ll ask for:
- The results of your sleep study
- A diagnosis of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)
- A prescription for the device and accessories
- Your physician’s notes on your case
Sleep apnea is well understood, easy to diagnose, relatively easy to treat, and covered by insurance. Yes, it’s always a drag to find out you have a medical problem. But fortunately, there are so many great doctors and treatments for it now. People just like you have recovered. And just think, pretty soon, you’ll be able to have the restful sleep you’ve been missing—so you can be alert while driving and working, snore less, and wake up every morning feeling refreshed from a good night’s sleep.