A LOT MORE THAN YOU THINK!
Many people believe that sleep apnea is simply serious snoring, but the two conditions are in fact quite different in their causes, symptoms and treatment. It is important to determine whether you suffer from sleep apnea as the condition can be extremely dangerous and, in some cases, lead to death.
Snoring is caused by vibration of respiratory structures due to obstructed air movement during breathing while sleeping. Sleep apnea is due to a lack of respiratory effort or a physical blockage to airflow, or a combination of both.
There are two types of sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is caused by a blockage of the airway, usually when the soft tissue in the back of the throat collapses during sleep and is the more common condition.
Central sleep apnea is when the brain fails to signal the muscles to breathe, due to instability in the respiratory control center.
Snoring leads to noise and interrupted sleep, while sleep apnea causes the sufferer to actually stop breathing during sleep. These abnormal pauses in breathing are referred to as apneas and the abnormally low breathing which can also occur is called hypopnea.
The symptoms of the two conditions are similar but differ in key areas. In both conditions, sufferers report feeling tired during the day and experience general fatigue. Symptoms of sleep apnea, however, extend to waking up with a very sore or dry throat, loud snoring, occasionally waking up with a choking or gasping sensation, sleepiness while driving, waking with a headache, restless sleep, decreased libido, mood swings, forgetfulness and frequent waking at night or insomnia. The fatigue that sleep apnea causes is severe and patients report needing to nap during the day, falling asleep watching television or while driving or talking to someone. Work performance and motivation also tend to suffer.
Sleep apnea is also closely related to high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, headaches and heart conditions such stroke, heart failure, irregular heartbeat, and heart attacks making it a much more serious problem than snoring.
It is important to note that while someone who snores may also suffer from sleep apnea, not all patients who have sleep apnea snore. This means that you may have sleep apnea even if you don’t snore.
Snorers generally know they snore because someone has told them they do. Sleep apnea, especially without snoring as a symptom, is more difficult to diagnose. A sleep study is the best way to confirm the condition. In a sleep study, or polysomnogram, the patient stays at a sleep centre for a night where they are hooked up to machines which monitor body functions such as brain activity, eye movements, muscle activity, heart rhythm and oxygen saturation to determine if they suffer from a sleep condition such as sleep apnea. There are also home tests available.
Treatment for snoring and sleep apnea differs as well. Snoring can often be treated with a change in lifestyle – losing some weight, stopping smoking and cutting down on alcohol – treating hay fever or allergies, changing sleeping position or using an over-the-counter mouthpiece.
Although these measures can also alleviate sleep apnea, more serious cases require interventions such as a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure device (CPAP) which is a machine that keeps the patient’s airway open during sleep by delivering a continuous flow of pressurized air into the throat. Another option is custom-made mouthpiece that shifts the lower jaw forward to open the airway, known as Oral Appliance Therapy.
Surgery is an option for patients who have tried these interventions with no success, especially those who suffer from deviated nasal septum, enlarged tonsils, or a small lower jaw with an overbite causing the throat to be too narrow. Surgical treatment aims at opening the airway and is individualised to address the anatomical areas which may be causing a blockage. Surgeries such as hyoid suspension, base of tongue advancement surgeries, pharyngeal surgeries and nasal surgeries are common options for sufferers of sleep apnea. Jaw surgery is considered to be the most effective surgery for sleep apnea patients and is often the treatment of choice.
The key thing is not to suffer through either condition without getting treated. Snoring and sleep apnea both have a detrimental effect on good sleep which is essential for optimum physical and mental health. Although rare, sleep apnea has been linked to death, particularly in people who have heart conditions so finding an effective treatment could save your life.