Sleep Apnea is a serious sleep disorder, and often the people that have it don’t even realize that they have it. In this article, we’ll quickly go through the types of sleep apnea, it’s causes, symptoms and some conventional, and not so conventional, treatments.
Sleep Apnea – Symptoms and Types
Sleep Apnea is the technical name for a condition where you momentarily pause breathing, or have very shallow breathing, for a short time while you are asleep. This pause can be as short as a few seconds or as long as a few minutes, and it happens five to thirty times and hour (for really serious cases, it can be more!).
The actual pause in breathing is called an apnea, and it is defined into three separate categories:
- Central Sleep Apnea (CSA) is a very minor (<1%) representative of sleep apneas. It’s cause is an actual physiological lack of respiration effort when you try to breathe while asleep – it isn’t caused by some airway obstruction, as is OSA. Your internal trigger to breathe is somehow affected mentally. Click on the link for more information…
- Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) is the most common type of sleep apnea (about 85%). Here, there is something physical that impedes the flow of air into your lungs. So here we have sufficient effort (strength) to push air in and out, but something gets in the way. Snoring with OSA is very common.
- Mixed or Complex Sleep Apnea. This one is actually just a mixture of the first two (CSA and OSA) and it’s thought that somehow the continued presence of OSA might bring on the CSA. Nobody is sure how this works.
The diagnosis of any of these types of sleep apnea depend on the actual awareness that you have it! Most often, this comes about by your spouse or partner talking about your gaps in breathing at night, or perhaps your excessive snoring (although it’s not really the snoring that’s the problem – it’s when you stop snoring for short durations during the night).
If the sleep apnea is serious enough that you’re missing out large chunks of restful sleep, then part of the diagnosis can be your sleepiness and fatigue the following day (every day), vision problems, and slower than normal reaction times.
Unfortunately, some people with the problem become so conditioned to feeling tired every day that they come to think that it’s “just normal”, and they never get the sleep apnea diagnosed – this has been known to go on for decades.
Sleep Apnea Diagnosis – What The Doctor Will Look For
Because of one of the reasons mentioned above, you’ve decided to go visit your doctor because you suspect sleep apnea. He’ll take a couple of steps to confirm that you have an issue:
- First he’ll confirm all the daytime fatigue symptoms you’ve already recognized – tired, unfocused, uncoordinated.
- Second he’ll order a sleep test – either a sleep lab polysomnograph test or something you can do at home (normally less accurate, but more convenient – and any obvious apneas will show up in both).
Now you’d think the results of this test would be cut-and-dry, and if you have a serious case they probably are, but there’s some controversy here. There are so many variables involved – age, sex, fitness, diet, smoking, alcohol use, number and severity of apnea episodes at night, and on-and-on, that what one doctor says is apnea may not be confirmed by a different doctor. In my opinion this comes down to the “technical definition” of sleep apnea – but if it’s affecting your life – who cares what we call it.
I would think that if they spotted multiple “events” at night, and you’re drowsy the next day – you have sleep apnea and you should take steps to improve. And there’s many here that don’t even involve a doctor.
Common Sleep Apnea Cures and Strategies
A common method for handling sleep apnea, at least in the short term (because they’ve found that long term people don’t use them) is the very common CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine. It’s strapped on to your nose and mouth (much like an oxygen mask in a hospital) and provides pressurized air to you all night long. The pressure is adjusted to it provides just enough to overcome whatever your obstruction is.
Another method would be some kind of surgery or implants to either clear away the blockage or enlarge the airway. These solutions tend to be much more long term that any CPAP machine, but they do involve surgical risks of their own.
An oral appliance – probably prescribed for you from a dentist that specializes in sleep disorders – can prove effective. The appliance moves your jaw forward and opens your airway at night.
But that’s not what I promised you at the start. We said natural ways to handle sleep apnea.
These methods work best with the more serious cases – if you have a major obstruction or cannot get enough respiratory pressure, this is likely the route you’ll head. But for a large percentage of people – these tips coming up just might do the trick.
Natural Sleep Apnea Treatments
There are a variety of sleep apnea treatments that you need to try before going the route of a CPAP machine, surgery, implants or appliances:
- Lose some weight. People with a BMI of >30 are at a higher risk of OSA. Sometimes losing just a bit of weight is enough to reduce the obstruction to it’s not impeding your breathing.
- Don’t use muscle relaxants – so check your medication (it could be part of it and you don’t even know). This could cause the obstruction to “relax” and fall back into your airway. If you take a sleeping pill – make sure it doesn’t do this as well.
- No alcohol – it relaxes your muscles. So if you drink, make sure it’s out of your system before you lie down to sleep.
- Sleep partially sitting up. Researchers find that a sleeping angle of about 30 degrees can prevent an obstruction from blocking airways.
- Sleep on your side versus your back. Sewing a tennis ball into your night shirt or pajamas is a common way of dealing with this – it prevents you from rolling on your back.
- Quit Smoking. This has so many health ramifications, are you surprised it’s here too? Don’t be. Smoking affects respiration.
- This last one, as strange as it sounds, has been proven to work for many. Practice the didgerido! It’s thought that it strengthens the mouth and throat muscles so much that the OSA doesn’t present itself at night.
- Same with some selected mouth and tongue exercises – strengthening these muscles helps!
So these are some easy things that you can and should do.
First, confirm with your doctor that you actually have sleep apnea – this will involve some kind of sleep study along with some discussion of your next day fatigue. Next, try the steps listed above – some of them can be lifestyle changing (losing weight, no alcohol, quit smoking, taking up the didgeridoo) but if they work, you might just live longer.
If these tips don’t work, or if your sleep apnea is pretty serious, consider some of the longer term strategies seriously – surgery, implants or appliances. They may involve more discomfort (and expense) up front, but the long term results from them is much better.
People that learn to rely on their CPAP machine regularly stop using it, as it is disruptive to their life. But for the short term – it’s the most common way to start getting a better night’s sleep.
Remember that this is a very serious condition – people die from it. So take whatever steps you need to resolve it.
Who knows – there may be a whole new you in the post-apnea world!
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