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A Diagnosis of Sleep Apnea Could be a Life Saver

A Diagnosis of Sleep Apnea Could be a Life Saver

Nighttime snoring is no laughing matter, even though that's how it's often depicted in movies and on TV. When the Skipper's loud snoring kept disturbing bunkmate Gilligan's sleep, we laughed along with the laugh track, knowing that the Skipper's little buddy was doomed to endless nights of interrupted sleep until they got off that island.

Loud snoring can be a telltale sign of sleep apnea, a sleep disorder characterized by breathing that stops and starts, over and over. It disrupts the sleep of the sufferer as well as anyone else within earshot patiently begging for a good night's shuteye. Experts at the Cleveland Clinic say such sleep interruptions can occur hundreds of times a night, each one lasting 10 to 30 seconds and routinely followed by a snort when breathing resumes.

The more common form of sleep apnea, according to webmd.com and the Mayo Clinic, is known as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which involves involuntary relaxation of the throat muscles, causing an airway blockage. Then there's central sleep apnea, in which the brain fails to signal the muscles to breathe because of instability in the respiratory control center. The American Sleep Apnea Association (ASAA) identifies a third type of sleep apnea, known as mixed, which, as you might have guessed, is a combination of the first two.

Apnea is a Greek word that means "without breath." That's the first hint this is no joke. Sleep apnea left untreated can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke, as well as diabetes and depression, among other serious maladies. There's also indirect consequences, such as a lack of sleep that can cause daytime sleepiness, which often has been cited in cases of drivers falling asleep at the wheel and causing automobile accidents.

Other than loud snoring, common indicators of sleep apnea listed by the ASAA include obesity, persistent daytime sleepiness, instances of waking up at night out of breath, and awakening in the morning with dry mouth or a headache. "None of these symptoms is always present," says the ASAA, adding that only a sleep study professionally conducted in a sleep laboratory or at home can determine if sleep apnea is at work, and to what degree.

Sleep apnea knows no age discrimination: children and the elderly can have it, as well as anyone else in between. It's really not that uncommon: 25 percent of men and about 10 percent of women suffer from it, according to Cleveland Clinic, with folks who are overweight and over the age of 50 the ones most likely to develop sleep apnea at some point. Other at-risk factors, according to webmd.com, include having a large neck size (17 inches or greater for men, 16 inches for women); large tonsils, a large tongue, or a small jaw bone; a family history of sleep apnea, gastroesophageal reflux; or a nasal obstruction caused by a deviated septum, allergies, or sinus issues.

Baseball player Mike Napoli of the Boston Red Sox (as of this writing) suffered from sleep apnea for about 10 years, much of that time going undiagnosed. Finally, between the 2014 and 2015 seasons, Napoli went through a seven-hour procedure known as maxillomandibular advancement, according to Sports Illustrated, in which a small power saw was used to cut and then reconfigure his chin, jaw and sinuses. It wasn't long before he was getting a good night's sleep, complete with typically weird dreams (a good sign) often lacking in sleep apnea victims.

Sleep apnea treatments range from conservative to more involved; case in point, Napoli. For some OSA sufferers, a 10 percent weight loss, avoiding alcohol or certain sleeping medications, or sleeping on one's side, with the help of carefully-placed pillows, vs. on the back is sufficient to alleviate the condition. There's also mechanical therapy, such as Positive Airway Pressure (PAP) therapy, as described by Cleveland Clinic, in which "patients wear a mask over their nose and/or mouth (and) an air blower gently forces air through the nose and/or mouth." Once the air pressure is correctly adjusted to the patient, just enough air is pumped to prevent the upper airway tissues from collapsing during sleep.

If you think you might have sleep apnea, or someone close to you suggests you might (and they will), see your physician and work together on a solution. Sweet dreams.