Snoring is annoying, but at what point is a health concern? Although snoring often stems from a stuffy nose, an individual’s nasal anatomy, or the sleeping environment, it can sometimes mean something much more serious: sleep apnea. Learn more about this sleep condition, how you can lessen the symptoms and treatments currently available.
Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder during which a person stops breathing during sleep. The interruption of breathing happens repeatedly all night, often as 100 times a night, leaving the brain and body deprived of oxygen.
Sleep apnea has two different forms: obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea, the more common of the two, occurs when throat muscles relax and block airways during sleep, creating loud snoring. This type occurs in middle-aged and older adults and individuals who are overweight, as well as being more prevalent in men. Central sleep apnea often occurs in people who have certain medical conditions, like stroke, complications from spinal surgery, arthritis, and Parkinson’s disease. Some of the symptoms of central sleep apnea are chronic fatigue, morning headaches, and restless sleep.
Many of the symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea can be fought with simple lifestyle changes. For instance, obstructive sleep apnea can be made worse by obesity, so losing weight can improve symptoms. High blood pressure can also be a factor, so regular exercise and a low-salt diet can help. Other changes include:
- Sleep on your side instead of your back to keep your throat more open. Use pillows behind your back to encourage side sleeping, or sew a pocket into the back of your night clothes and fill it with softballs so sleeping on your back becomes uncomfortable.
- Stop smoking.
- Use allergy medicines, nasal spray, or strips to keep your nasal passages open.
- Avoid alcohol or sedatives that can make you excessively sleepy.
Another common treatment for obstructive sleep apnea is a mouth guard, also known as an oral appliance. These can be found at drugstores over the counter or online at retailers like Amazon.com or can be ordered from a physician for a custom fit. A dentist or orthodontist can make a custom-fit plastic mouthpiece to help you adjust your lower jaw. Oral appliances are molded to the shape of your teeth and mouth and keep the mouth open at an angle that keeps the jaw and tongue from relaxing into your throat. Oral appliances are easy to wear and clean and can help improve symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea without extra equipment.
For more serious cases of obstructive sleep apnea, obstructive sleep apnea that still persists after lifestyle changes have occurred, and central sleep apnea, doctors recommend a nasal CPAP or continuous positive airway pressure. The CPAP delivers slightly pressurized air to the patient during the breathing cycle and involves three parts: a mask or device that fits snugly on your mouth and nose, a tube that connects the mask to the machine monitor, and a motor that blows air to the tube. CPAP is the best treatment for sleep apnea, despite the bulky equipment, and can save the lives of individuals who are suffering from extreme cases of this sleep disorder.