In its most common form, sleep apnea occurs when the muscles at the back of your throat relax during sleep, collapsing your airway. Suddenly you’re not getting enough air, and your brain wakes you up briefly—just long enough to adjust and reopen the airway. You usually don’t even realize it’s happened. But it can happen five, 25, even 100 times an hour in severe cases—meaning your body doesn’t reach the deeper stages of sleep you need to function normally.
That drop in oxygen also makes your heart work harder. Each time your oxygen level drops, your body releases a stress hormone, epinephrine. When epinephrine levels stay too high, it raises your blood pressure. This, in turn, makes your heart work harder, which thickens heart walls and changes the structure of your heart over time.
Diagnosing Sleep Apnea
Even if you’re experiencing the signs of sleep apnea, you’ll need to have a sleep study so that your doctor can understand the extent and severity of your problem.
A sleep center, like the Hancock Sleep Disorder Center, can arrange a sleep study. This can happen at the center in one of their sleep suites. An at-home study may also be possible. Typically, seven hours of sleep are required. The study can seem a little uncomfortable at first, but the data that’s produced helps your doctor understand the quantity and quality of your sleep, as well as any other sleep issues.
Treating Sleep Apnea
There are a few different types of sleep apnea, but by far the most common is obstructive sleep apnea, in which your throat muscles relax during sleep and close your airway. If your apnea is mild, your doctor may simply recommend lifestyle changes such as losing weight or quitting smoking.
If your apnea is moderate to severe, the most common treatment for obstructive apnea is the use of a CPAP machine during sleep. CPAP stands for continuous positive airway pressure. Pressurized air is delivered through a mask; the greater pressure helps to keep the airway open, preventing both apnea and snoring.
While the mask can take getting used to, the CPAP is very effective, and most people find they sleep better and more deeply than before.
For those who find the CPAP machine unusable, other airway pressure devices and oral appliances may work better.
Or, if no other option works, surgery is possible—to remove tissue from your throat, reposition your jaw, or implant stabilizing rods or a nerve stimulator. Most doctors will consider surgery only after less invasive solutions have failed.
If you’ve been experiencing the signs of sleep apnea or another sleep disorder and are interested in discussing your options, contact the Hancock Sleep Disorder Center or call (317) 468-4610 to schedule a sleep health consultation.
If you’re concerned about the effect that your sleeping habits may have had on your heart, a low-cost heart scan may help to give you some peace of mind. Find out where you stand.