Eighteen to twenty million Americans suffer from this potentially grave sleep disorder. Many are not even aware of it. Sleep apnea is more likely to occur in older adults, in men rather than women, and more rarely in children. The symptoms of this abnormal “lack of breath” disorder appear relatively benign: sleepiness, snoring, abrupt awakenings, dry mouth, or morning headaches — conditions any number of us suffer now and then throughout our lives.
Risk factors, on the other hand, are not so benign: congestive heart failure or high blood pressure which definitely puts a strain on the cardiovascular system with the resultant risk of heart failure or stroke.
As a medical problem, the diagnostic evaluation can be determined by a variety of tests:
- Oximetry – Involves a painless method to monitor oxygen levels while one sleeps by fitting a plastic sleeve over ones finger. If results are abnormal, nocturnal polysomnography is often recommended.
- Nocturnal polysomnography – A test which monitors the activity of the brain, lung, and heart in addition to breathing, movements of arms and legs, and the all- important blood oxygen levels.
- Electroencephalogram (EEG) – A test which monitors brain waves and reveals whether one is repeatedly awakening, a condition most often associated with sleep apnea.
In addition to going through this battery of machine tests, other diagnosticians may be called upon as well: an ear, nose and throat doctor may assess blockage in the patient’s nose or throat. A cardiologist or neurologist may be called upon to assess the possibilities of neurological or heart problems.
An astounding number of other disorders besides just lack of sleep are now being attributed to sleep apnea as well: memory problems, reflux disease, depression, and an almost autonomic urge to urinate frequently. Children, unfortunately, can often be diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder if they suffer from sleep apnea.
Once properly diagnosed, the following treatment therapies may be considered:
- CPAP – An acronym for “continuous, positive airway pressure” which is delivered by a machine to keep the airway passages open. Dental devices which are designed to maintain an open air passage by manipulating the jaw forward.
- Uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP) – Now we dare you to say that one! Surgery in which tissue is removed from various parts of the mouth and throat that blocks one’s air passage (can be done now by laser technology).
- Radio frequency ablation (RFA) – As its name indicates, radio frequencies are used surgically to remove soft tissue.
- Tracheostomy – Used only in severe cases of sleep apnea where a hole in your neck is made in order for the patient to breathe.
In addition to the above, simpler treatments are available, too, several being quite obvious: loss of weight; no smoking; no alcohol or other medications; even strips across the nose to keep air passages open. Whatever regimens or therapies are recommended once a diagnosis has been made, many who have suffered with this malady notice remarkable life-style changes. Being the health professional who had a part in the recovery is rewarding.