Sleep Apnea: Super Common… And Super Serious

Your bed partner’s snoring keeping you up at night? It could be obstructive sleep apnea, a potentially serious sleep disorder that affects more than 12 million men and 9 million women in the United States, says Dr. David Yen, chief of the otolaryngology (ENT) section at St. Luke's University Health Network.

An apnea occurs when you stop breathing for 10 seconds or longer in your sleep. “We consider stopping or pausing breathing five times or less an hour to be acceptable,” Dr. Yen says. “But if it’s occurring more than five times an hour, it is considered obstructive sleep apnea.”

Sleep apnea occurs when the muscles and tissue in your throat relax and collapse which can cause your airway to become blocked, Dr. Yen says.

It is important to treat moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea because it increases your risk of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke, Dr. Yen says.  It also can disrupt your sleep and you wake up tired. “People often don’t feel well rested because they have constant sleep interruption,” he says. Being fatigued during the day can be a danger to you and those around you, too, he says.

Sleep apnea can have many possible causes. The most common is excess weight and obesity, which is on the rise. But people who are thin can have sleep apnea, too, Dr. Yen says.

If you or your bed partner suspect you might have sleep apnea, you should see your doctor. Your doctor may order a sleep test. During a sleep test, your oxygen levels and heart and breathing rates are monitored while you sleep. Sleep tests can be performed in a sleep lab such as the one at St. Luke’s Hospital – Stroudsburg campus.

Sleep tests also can be performed at home, Dr. Yen says. “A medical supply company sends a kit directly to you and you sleep in your own bed,” he says. A home sleep study is not as complete as a sleep lab but for many folks it is a reasonable alternative, he says.

Treatments for sleep apnea

If the study shows that you have obstructive sleep apnea, your doctor can help with some simple and some more complex interventions.  You and your doctor will determine what’s right for you, he says.

Simply adjusting your sleep position may help if you have mild sleep apnea. “Some people find they breathe better if they raise their head or sleep on their side versus their back,” Dr. Yen says.

Weight management also can play a big role in reducing sleep apnea. If you’re overweight and lose weight, you will sleep better, Dr. Yen says.

One of the most common and perhaps most effective treatments is a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine. “You put it over your nose and mouth and it delivers constant and steady air pressure that prevents your throat from collapsing and blocking your airways while you sleep,” Dr. Yen says. “CPAP works well but it can be difficult for many people to tolerate,” he says.

The most common surgery is uvulopalatopharyngoplasty or UPPP. During UPPP, the surgeon removes excess tissue from the soft palate and pharynx and places sutures to keep the area open and prevent collapse.

Obstructive sleep apnea is a “super common problem,” Dr. Yen says, and one that should never be ignored, especially if it is moderate to severe. 

Originally posted in the Pocono Record.