Learn more about the symptoms and dangers of sleep apnea. (Shutterstock)
Loud snoring is the bane of marriages and thin-walled apartment buildings. That log-sawing sound occurs when air coming into your lungs encounters resistance in your nose or throat. Basically, your mouth becomes a Whoopee cushion. The resistance to air flow usually results from a thick neck or large tongue.
About half of men and one-third of women snore. Though the acoustics can be so disruptive that your neighbors call the police (true story), snoring can also be a sign of the dangerous medical condition known as sleep apnea.
What is sleep apnea?
People with sleep apnea experience frequent short episodes in which they actually stop breathing. Sometimes the episodes cause momentary awakenings, though these are usually forgotten the next morning.
Most people with sleep apnea have obstructive sleep apnea, in which the throat periodically closes down and air flow stops altogether – basically, a really extreme version of snoring.
The other type of sleep apnea, known as central sleep apnea, is far less common and occurs mostly in older males with other medical conditions such as heart failure or a history of stroke, or people taking narcotic pain medications.
What are the symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea?
In addition to snoring, common symptoms include:
Daytime fatigue or sleepinessWaking up feeling like you are chokingMorning headachesMorning sore throat or dry mouthWaking up at night several times to urinateMemory problems
Is sleep apnea actually dangerous?
Yes. Besides causing fatigue that results in a 20 car pile-up, untreated sleep apnea also increases your risk of high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, stroke, and cardiovascular disease.
How do I know if I have sleep apnea?
You’re at increased risk if you have difficult-to-treat blood pressure and a thick neck (greater than 16 inches in women, or 17 inches in men).
The popular STOP-BANG questionnaire, used by physicians to detect possible obstructive sleep apnea, includes the following items:
Snore loudlyTired all the timeObserved choking while asleep at nightPressure (i.e. blood pressure) is highBMI greater than 35Age older than 50Neck size larger than 16 inches for women, or 17 inches for menGender is male
If you have three or more of the above items, you’re at risk of having sleep apnea. (If you have five or more, you’re at high risk.)
Your doctor may schedule a sleep study during which your heart rate, oxygen levels, and breathing are monitored.
How can I treat sleep apnea?
You can improve your symptoms by losing weight, exercising more, drinking less alcohol, and sleeping on your side (instead of on your back). These interventions also help with run-of-the-mill snoring.
The definitive treatment for sleep apnea is a mask over your nose that blows air into your lungs, known as CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure). Another good option for some people with mild sleep apnea is a special dental appliance that moves the lower jaw forward. Surgery is not generally effective in adults (but can be helpful for children with sleep apnea).
Special thanks to Dr. Amy Atkeson for reviewing this article.
Christopher Kelly, M.D., M.S. and Marc Eisenberg, M.D., F.A.C.C. are cardiologists at Columbia University Medical Center and the authors of "AM I DYING?!: A Complete Guide To Your Symptoms and What To Do Next."