Obstructive sleep apnea is a silent killer. What seems to be an innocent snoring sound may actually be a signal that the person is prone to develop dangerous illnesses such as hypertension, diabetes, stroke and heart attack. This is because snoring may actually mean that you have sleep apnea, a condition wherein there is reduction of ventilation and breathing pauses during sleep.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Obstructive sleep apnea is a sleep disorder wherein the person stops breathing for seconds during sleep. This pause on breathing is caused by relaxation of the throat muscles because they collapse, close and block the airways. Despite a person's effort to breath, there is still a physical obstruction to airflow, thus making him wake up in the middle of the night from sleep. Snoring may be observed by the partner of the patient, parents, siblings or other people living with him. The obstruction of the airways in sleep apnea is due to relaxed airways, bulky or malformed pharyngeal muscles, supine position during sleep, age over 40 years old and increased fat in the neck area due to obesity.
Sleep apnea has various signs and symptoms. One is excessive daytime sleepiness, fidgety sleep, snoring which may be loud, apneic episodes during sleep, or gasping during sleep. There may also be morning headaches, poor concentration, impaired cognition, mood problems, insomnia, depression and irritability. Hypertension may result, as well as weight gain, increased urination and increased frequency of urination during the night. In male patients, there may be decreased libido, and erectile dysfunction. There may also be elevated blood pressures, weight gain and other problems. Heartburn may also be felt by some patients.
There are a number of factors which may contribute to the development of sleep apnea. Several of these factors include old age, decreased muscle tone (which may be due to the intake of alcohol, use of drugs, neurological problems or other disorders), excess soft tissue around the airways which may be caused by too much fat around the neck, and deformities in the jaw or throat. Sleep apnea is mostly caused by relaxation of the muscles of the respiratory system during sleep, which may lead further into airway constriction and narrowing and later on closure of the airways. This then produces a sound called snoring. Once there is complete obstruction, there is cessation of breathing for a few seconds. This soon wakes up the person from sleeping and they gasp for air and return to this vicious cycle while sleeping. Hypopnea or shallow breathing may result when there is only partial airway obstruction.
People who are at risk of acquiring sleep apnea are those children who have larger tonsils or adenoids, those with diabetes, those with high blood pressure, obese people, those who frequently suffer from nasal congestion, those with a set back inner jaw, those with fat necks, those who smoke, those who drink alcohol regularly, those with a family history of obstructive sleep apnea, those with Down syndrome and those who underwent certain surgeries such as pharyngeal flap surgery.
Sleep apnea should be treated as soon as possible because it can give rise to certain complications. People with sleep apnea are also at high risk of sudden cardiac death. Complications of obstructive sleep apnea include hypertension, automobile accidents, suffering of family members, erectile dysfunction, heart attacks, and stroke. This is why sleep apnea needs to be treated as soon as possible.
Sleep Apnea and Pneumonia
Recently, a study has found out that people who have sleep apnea are at a higher risk for acquiring pneumonia. The results of this study were published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. In this study, researchers from Taiwan studied around 34 100 patients (6816 who had sleep apnea and 27 284 controls) for 11 years. They found that pneumonia was more likely to develop in the people with sleep apnea than in the control group (638 [9.36%] v. 2119 [7.77%]). The people with pneumonia were older and had more comorbidities such as heart disease, diabetes, dementia and other diseases. The results showed that obstructive sleep apnea is an independent risk factor for pneumonia.
You can learn more about sleep apnea by reading our other articles on this site.