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Is Obstructive Sleep Apnea Dangerous?

Updated on August 8, 2019
Sam Shepards profile image

I'm Sam. I enjoy writing about sleep and mental health-related topics as well as ways to prevent stress and relax.

Do you have the luxury of feeling restful in the morning? Or like millions of Americans, do you traverse the day fighting tiredness and fatigue? Worry not. You may be experiencing an all too common sleep disorder. In fact, the most frequent sleeping disorder diagnosed by researchers is obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA.

What is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea may just account for the mild symptoms you experience such as headaches and irritation, to more serious medical conditions such as high blood pressure and strokes.

Having a thorough understanding of obstructive sleep apnea can help equip you to make the necessary changes necessary for better health and a more fulfilling life.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea is a sleep-related disorder in which a person repeatedly stops breathing due to interference in the airway passage. Such interference prevents the free flow of air into the lungs. An apnea is when you stop breathing for 10 seconds or more.

Hence, an obstructed apnea is defined as the absence of airflow for that period of time. This occurs “when tissues in the upper throat relax and come together during sleep, temporarily blocking the passage of air.”

Any obstruction along the air passage involving the nose, mouth, and throat, can restrict air as it works its way into the lungs. Breath is temporarily halted when tissue or anatomical structures collapse and momentarily cause obstruction.

Snoring may develop as a result of the throat vibrating due to affected shallow breathing. In most cases, you will be unaware of any cessations. Occasionally you may be awoken by a sudden gasp as you attempt to rectify the need for oxygen.

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea & Disrupted Airflow Patterns

It is a defining element of OSA that cessation of breath occurs repeatedly throughout the night, disrupting a person’s normal sleeping pattern. If you experience five or more episodes of apnea per hour of sleep you may be diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea. Research has defined moderate sleep apnea to consist of those individuals who experience 15 or more episodes per hour of slumber.

Obstructive sleep apnea symptoms vary from mild to serious. OSA can lead to a number of complications. What’s more, mild symptoms can escalate into severe issues if not properly attended to. Daytime drowsiness and can increase the likelihood of job impairments and potentially life-threatening situations.

High blood pressure may result from lack of oxygen intake and may develop into a number of medical conditions such as diabetes, heart failure, stroke, and atrial fibrillation. Inadequate oxygen intake due to OSA may affect neurological function and respiratory functioning. Eye disorders, headaches, and asthma are mild risks of OSA that may allude to more complicated issues. It’s also worth mentioning that depression rises with increasing severity of sleep apnea.

When to Get Tested?

It is clear that the risks of obtrusive sleep apnea mirror non-clinical conditions such as working excessive hours, self-imposed short sleep time, chronic fatigue syndrome, and restless legs syndrome. Consider being tested if sleepiness begins to affect the quality of your daily life. For example, when drowsiness on-the-job begins to place you or others in danger, it would be suggested to take a critical look at your sleeping habits.

“If diagnostic testing is necessary, a sleep specialist or sleep disorders center will perform an in-depth medical and physical exam. These centers should be accredited by the American Association of Sleep Medicine.”

If you find yourself with daytime tiredness, morning headaches, or cognitive impairment, you are most likely suffering from sleep depravity. Irritability and impaired mental or emotional functioning may result. Among the most prevalent obtrusive sleep apnea symptoms is snoring associated with choking or gasping.

Patients experiencing loud or irritable snoring will more often than not find that they are experiencing OSA. Loud snorts or gasps for breath are a characteristic sign of air flow obstruction.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea Treatment

Any treatment associated with obstructive sleep apnea focuses on the free flow of air intake. Two forms of non-invasive obstructive sleep apnea treatment aim to do just that.

Positive Airway Pressure Machines

Positive Airway Pressure Machines are “the most widely used treatment for moderate to severe sleep apnea.” There are several types of machines to provide pressurized air. These include the Continuous Positive Airway Pressure Machine (CPAP), the Bilevel Positive Airway Pressure Machine (BiPAP), and the Variable Positive Airway Pressure Machine (VPAP).

Oral Appliances

Oral Appliances are the second non-surgical technique used to correct sleep apnea. The most widely used dental device for sleep apnea is the Mandibular Apnea Device. Similar to a mouth guard, this appliance is worn during sleep and positions the lower jaw slightly forward. The small forward adjustments made incrementally on a nightly basis keep the airway channels open during rest. Snoring reduces as an effect of the position of the jaws allowing the free flow of air at the back of the mouth.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea Surgery

For severe cases of sleep apnea, surgery may be recommended by a specialist. Surgical treatment most often involves the removal of soft tissue within the nasal cavity and in the back of the throat, in order to provide more space for air to flow through. For example, Uvulopalatopharyngoplasty, or UPPP, is the surgical procedure involving the removal of soft tissues on the back of the throat.

Other areas of concern may involve the soft palate, the uvula, and the tonsils. The goal of such surgeries, such as UPPP, is to widen the airway of the throats opening and improve the ability of the airway to remain open.

Causes of Sleep Apnea

The causes of obstructive sleep apnea vary. There are a number of biological factors that can naturally affect air flow. Depending on size, physical characteristics such as the face and neck may become risk factors. For example, large necks, considered to be 17 inches or greater in men and 16 inches or greater in women, is a risk factor for sleep apnea. A correlation in obesity and OSA due to the excess tissue present in overweight individuals has also been claimed by medical professionals.

Most structural abnormalities pertaining to the cause of obstructive sleep apnea involve the soft palate. If this region is discovered to be stiffer or larger than normal, it is more likely to present complications for airflow. Similarly, an enlarged soft palate may also be a significant risk factor. Any abnormality or weakness of muscles around the throat may potentially collapse the structure and be a cause of OSA.

Sources on OSA

There are many resources available for those wishing further knowledge. Obstructive stress apnea is the most common form of sleep disorder affecting millions of Americans. The National Sleep Foundation and National Center on Sleep Disorders Research are two such places that are dedicated towards increasing awareness and furthering research. Sleep is a critical factor affecting the quality of all aspects of life. Increased awareness of one’s sleeping patterns and the practice of healthy sleep habits will improve your daytime performance and lead to a longer, healthier life.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2016 Sam Shepards


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