Expert Commentary: Dr. Elliot Goodman May 1, 2009

The study, published by the American Physiological Society in the Journal of Applied Physiology, describes a three times greater risk of experiencing a stroke or dying, compared to people with similar health but without sleep apnea. What the study did not say though is that the vast majority of people with sleep apnea are overweight. So here we learn about another way how being overweight creates a condition that is a risk factor for debilitating stroke or death.

So here’s a quick course on sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea refers to episodes of apnea (not breathing) during sleep. A person suffering from the problem has fragmented sleep with transient awakenings. Sometimes hundred of times per night. As the article reported sufferers had significantly reduced blood oxygen levels during sleep. The blood oxygen can drop to a dangerously low point putting sufferers at risk for stroke. Other dangers include cardiac arrhythmias (irregular heart beats) which can at times be fatal.

So how does one know one has sleep apnea? After all, we are asleep when it is occurring. 

Often it’s the bed partner who notices either the broken sleep patterns or loud snoring. Sleep apnea symptoms include falling asleep at inappropriate times, such as at work, while driving, sitting in a chair, or watching T.V.  Other symptoms can include more generalized issues, such as morning headaches, memory difficulties, low energy, agitation, shortness of breath, or leg swelling. 

And then, how is sleep apnea treated?

Well, the first step is to lose weight. Weight reduction not only relieves the symptoms of sleep apnea but lowers risk factors all around, especially for cardiovascular disease. Then avoid alcohol and sedatives which disturb sleep patterns. 

The treatments? The most common treatment is a special mask that you wear during sleep - continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). It is a machine that delivers air pressure through a mask placed over your nose while you sleep. The air pressure is somewhat greater than that of the surrounding air, and is just enough to keep your upper airway passages open, preventing apnea and snoring.

There are also devices that are used to reposition the tongue to help prevent obstruction. And finally there are medications a doctor can prescribe to stimulate the respiratory response.

The first thing to do, if you suspect that you may have sleep apnea is to consult with a physician for a full diagnosis and development of a treatment protocol. 

 

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