Sleep apnea affects more people in North America than asthma and yet chances are you may never have heard of it.
Dr. Jeffrey Lipsitz, director of the Sleep Disorders Centre of Metro Toronto, joined Dr. Marla Shapiro to talk more about the snoring disease that can take your breath away.
"A lot of people snore and not all of them have sleep apnea but they are on the same continuum, the same spectrum of things that affect your breathing while you're sleeping," Lipsitz explained. "When we snore it's because the air is not flowing through the upper airway smoothly while we are sleeping. Normally the airway is wide open so you don't hear people breathe."
"When you fall asleep it's obviously normal for the muscles in your body to relax and that includes the muscles in your upper airway," he added. "At some point your airway gets narrow enough that the air is not flowing through smoothly and the tissues begin to vibrate and you produce this noise that we recognize as a snore. And if you go beyond that and your airway narrows to the point of being closed, that's when you're developing an apnea."
Sleep apnea: There's more than just one kind
Apnea, by definition, means a cessation of breathing, Lipsitz said. There are at least two different kinds of apnea. The first is called central apnea where your brain basically forgets to tell your body to breathe. The other, by far more common kind of apnea is called obstructive apnea, which is pretty much an upper airway obstruction.
"Your muscles have relaxed to the point that the airway is closed completely and it's almost like you are choking while you are asleep," Lipsitz said. "Now at that point, you may be unaware of what's happening. Your brain is trying to get you to wake up to start breathing again so your sleep may be disturbed although you have no recollection of these episodes the next morning."
Page 1 of 2 – Learn what existing health conditions could put you at risk for developing sleep apnea, plus what you can to manage symptoms on page 2.
While an episode is occurring Lipsitz said, there are a lot of things happening in your body. Your oxygen level may drop significantly, your heart may speed up or slow down or start to beat erratically as a result of all that and your blood pressure may go up. All of these things put a strain on your cardiovascular system and your body as a whole. Some people can have hundreds of these episodes in a night and it is that which begins to constitute the severity of the disease.
Who's most likely to have sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea was once considered a disease exclusive to middle-aged men. It actually occurs in both sexes and children as well. Basically anything that can cause a narrowing of the upper airway can contribute to the development of sleep apnea.
In the case of children, it's more commonly related to having big tonsils or adenoids, Lipsitz said. As such, in kids, surgery can be more often used as a cure-all.
In adults and older people, being overweight or being congested because of allergies can increase the chances of getting sleep apnea. Lipsitz also noted that besides all the other health concerns associated with smoking, it may increase up to 40 times the risk of having a snoring and sleep apnea related problem. The smoke in the upper airway irritates the passageways and they swell up, leaving less room to breathe through during sleep.
How to avoid sleep apnea
"Sleep apnea can lead to the development of high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, early death, pretty much all the things you'd like to avoid," Lipsitz said. "It's very worrisome and because it keeps disrupting your sleep, unbeknownst to you, it also increases by up to 5 to 7 times the risk of having a motor vehicle crash the next day because you're sleepier than you're aware and you're significantly impaired during the day."
Lipsitz displayed a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) device. It is a filtered air blower. It is not a ventillator or an oxygen machine. It takes in regular room air and blows it out again at a pressure determined by the doctor's treating you. The air comes through the tubing into a little mask strapped over your nose. The air holds open your upper airway eliminating apneas and the stress on your cardiovascular system. As a bonus, you'll no longer snore either, Lipsitz said.
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