Do you often feel sleepy during the day? Do you feel exhausted in the mornings, despite the amount of sleep you get? Have you been told that you snore? If you answered yes to these questions, you may be at risk for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). Obstructive sleep apnea is a dangerous condition that can ruin your health and quality of life when unaddressed. But fortunately, it is easily diagnosed and treatable. In this article, I will discuss exactly what obstructive sleep apnea is, how you can know whether you are at risk, and what you can do about it.
What is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA or simply, “sleep apnea”) is a condition that occurs when your airway becomes intermittently blocked while you are sleeping, preventing you from getting enough air into your lungs. This results in low oxygen levels in the blood which can end up affecting your health in many ways—one of which is chronic fatigue and daytime sleepiness. When sleep apnea is left untreated, it can lead to high blood pressure, worsen heart conditions, and increase your risk of a stroke or a heart attack.
Signs and Symptoms of Obstructive Sleep Apnea
The main symptom of obstructive sleep apnea is daytime sleepiness. The main warning sign of obstructive sleep apnea is constant snoring. Together, these signs and symptoms suggest that you may be at high risk of having obstructive sleep apnea. Ask yourself if you experience any of the following symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea. If you sleep in close proximity to someone, also ask them if they have ever noticed the following signs at night.
- Daytime sleepiness and constant fatigue
- Constant snoring at night (often loud)
- Choking, snorting, or gasping while asleep
- Pauses in breathing during sleep
- Waking up at night feeling short of breath
- Not feeling refreshed upon waking up in the morning (no matter how much sleep you get)
- Morning headaches
- Poor concentration and mental functioning
- Feeling depressed or irritable during the day
Risk Factors for Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Certain people are more at risk of having obstructive sleep apnea than others. These are people who are either anatomically prone to airway blockage or have lifestyle habits that contribute to it. Ask yourself if you have any of these risk factors for obstructive sleep apnea:
- Being overweight or obese
- Drinking alcohol in the evening
- Taking sleeping pills or muscle relaxants regularly
- Having enlarged tonsils
- Sleeping on your back
- Smoking cigarettes
Obstructive Sleep Apnea Self-Assessment:
Calculating Your OSA Risk
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you snore loudly (louder than talking or loud enough to be heard through closed doors)?
- Do you often feel tired, fatigued, or sleepy during the daytime?
- Has anyone ever noticed that you stop breathing during your sleep?
- Do you have or are you being treated for high blood pressure?
- Is your body mass index (BMI) higher than 35 kg/m2?
- Are you over 50 years old?
- Is your neck circumference greater than 16 inches (40 cm)?
- Are you male?
How many times did you answer YES?
0 – 2
You are at low risk for OSA
3 – 4
You are at intermediate risk for OSA
5 – 8
You are at high risk for OSA
If you scored a 5 or above on the OSA Self-Assessment, I would strongly encourage you to have a talk with your health care professional about your symptoms. If your doctor suspects that you may have obstructive sleep apnea, the next step would be to see a sleep specialist and to get a sleep study. There are different types of sleep studies, some of which are performed overnight in a clinic, others which can be done at home with special medical equipment. If you are diagnosed with OSA, your doctor will then discuss with you your treatment options.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea: What You Can Do About It
While the mainstay of OSA treatment is to use a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) breathing machine at night, there are some things that you can do on your own to help reduce your risk or improve the severity of your symptoms:
Avoid alcohol, sleeping pills, or muscle relaxants
These substances decrease the muscle tone in the back of your throat, which puts more pressure on your airway. By avoiding them, you will be eliminating one factor that contributes to a blocked airway.
Cigarette smoke irritates your tissues, causing swelling in the airway that can worsen symptoms.
Treat your allergies
If you also suffer from seasonal allergies, your nasal passages and airways are already irritated and inflamed. By getting your allergies under control, you will not only improve your symptoms but will feel better overall.
If you are overweight or obese, studies have shown that weight loss can significantly decrease symptoms caused by obstructive sleep apnea.
In addition to lifestyle habits, the manner in which you sleep can also affect your symptoms. By optimizing your sleeping habits, you can also help to improve the severity of your symptoms:
Sleep on your side
Some people only experience sleep apnea when sleeping on their back. This is because lying on your back makes it easier for your tongue and oral soft tissues to obstruct your airway. If you find yourself rolling onto your back during sleep, use the Tennis Ball Trick: Sew a tennis ball into a pocket onto the back of your sleeping shirt. This will prevent you from inadvertently turning onto your back during the night.
Prop your head up
Elevate your body from the waist up by using a foam wedge or special cervical pillow. This method also helps to improve heartburn symptoms.
Open your nasal passages
Use a nasal saline spray or irrigation system (neti pot) before going to bed or consider wearing a nasal strip while sleeping.
By doing your part to optimize your lifestyle and sleeping habits, you will not only help improve your symptoms of fatigue and reducing your risk of developing obstructive sleep apnea, but you will be helping your overall health.
*The information presented in “Snoring & Tired? You Might Have Obstructive Sleep Apnea” can be found in Being Empowered for a Healthy Heart: A personal guide to taking control of your health while living with chronic conditions, by Phoebe Chi, MD, MPH.