You've tried going to sleep early so you can get plenty of rest – and still, you're tired the next day. If you feel permanently exhausted, you may have sleep apnea. This condition causes you to stop breathing from 10 seconds to over a minute several times during sleep.
"Sleep apnea takes a toll on you, physically and emotionally," says Tapan Desai, MD, a pulmonologist and sleep medicine specialist with Franciscan Physician Network. "You may try to power through the fatigue by drinking coffee or sleeping more on the weekends. But you can't recover from the sleep debt you're incurring with sleep apnea – even if you sleep in every weekend."
Often going undiagnosed, sleep apnea not only causes chronic sleep deprivation but may also increase your risk of:
What Causes Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea causes people to stop breathing for at least 10 seconds to up to a minute or longer, multiple times a night. Here's what makes it so tricky to diagnose: Most often, people only partially awaken – enough to resume breathing – and aren't aware of what's happening. So they wake up tired without knowing why.
Types of Sleep Apnea
There are three types of sleep apnea that cause breathing to temporarily stop and oxygen levels to drop.
- Obstructive sleep apnea: The most common type of sleep apnea occurs when the soft tissue at the back of the airway collapses due to pressure.
- Central sleep apnea: There is a problem with the brain signals that tell the muscles to breathe.
- Mixed sleep apnea: This type of sleep apnea is caused by a combination of obstructive and central sleep apnea.
Who Is At Risk For Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea can affect anyone at any age, even children. However, you may be at greater risk if you:
- Have a family history of sleep apnea
- Are overweight (specifically having a neck size greater than 17 inches in men and 16 inches in women)
- Are over the age of 40
- Are male
- Have an abnormality in the anatomy of the nose, throat or upper airway
What Are The Symptoms Of Sleep Apnea?
Most of the time, those with sleep apnea are unaware of their breathing stoppages. So the problem may not be apparent unless a bed partner has witnessed breathing difficulties.
The start-stop pattern of breathing associated with sleep apnea is different than snoring, though, says Dr. Desai. "People think if you snore, you must have sleep apnea. But you can have sleep apnea without snoring, and you can have snoring without sleep apnea. Someone with sleep apnea will have multiple symptoms."
Here are some signs to watch for in addition to snoring:
- High blood pressure
- Morning headaches
- Multiple night awakenings
- Falling asleep inappropriately, such as while driving or in meetings
- Morning dry mouth (many people with the condition sleep with their mouth open)
- Never feeling fully rested and refreshed after sleeping
When Should You See A Doctor For Sleep Problems?
If you're experiencing poor sleep or have other sleep apnea symptoms, talk to your family doctor. You may need a referral for sleep testing (monitored sleeping), which is how doctors diagnose sleep apnea.
The good news is that sleep apnea is highly treatable. Your doctor may recommend these lifestyle changes and noninvasive treatments:
- Change your sleeping position
- Lose weight
- Avoid alcohol
- Use breathing devices (such as a CPAP machine)
"The most important thing is to recognize that you need help. People often fail to realize how fatigued they feel because they're so busy," says Dr. Desai. "Take the time to check in with yourself and get the care you need to live life to the fullest."
Learn more about sleep disorders treatment at Franciscan Health.