What is Sleep Apnea and How Might It Be Ruining Your Sleep?

According to Dr. Brandon Peters, roughly 90 million Americans report some variety of "sleep-disordered breathing". That is, they have some sort of breathing issue that crops up when they're asleep that affects their sleep quality. Most often, the issue manifests itself as snoring, which is when the soft tissues of the mouth and throat relax and partially obstruct the airway. The lungs pull the air through those tissues, which makes a loud and annoying noise that may or may not wake up everyone in the house except the person snoring and make those people want to grab pillow or some hard, blunt object and silence the snorer with extreme prejudice. 

Or maybe that's just how it was in my house...

However, snoring can be a sign of a more serious condition called obstructive sleep apnea. What happens in these cases is the sleeper's airway partially or completely collapses, which cuts off their airway entirely and causes them to wake up abruptly. These collapses can happen several times an hour (and in severe cases, over 30 times an hour). Obstructive sleep apnea can be a dangerous condition if left untreated. The American Sleep Apnea Association estimates roughly 22 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea, which is a lot, but it gets worse. Up to 80 percent of people with moderate to severe sleep apnea never get an official diagnosis. They figure they have a snoring problem or they just can't get comfortable at night. They might change mattresses or pillows frequently and chalk up their lack of sleep to "that's just how it is". 

But that's not just how it is. No one should suffer from sleep apnea without getting proper medical treatment. Let's look at a few signs that might point to the condition. 
  1. Loud snoring after which you wake up sputtering or choking. Of course, you'll most likely have to have someone keep an eye on you in your sleep, but I'm willing to bed if your loved one sees you do this, they'll say something. But ask. 
  2. Waking up with a dry mouth, frequently. We all get cottonmouth once in a while, especially during the winter when the air is dry. Frequent dry mouth is an indication you're breathing through your mouth for long periods, which can be an indication of apnea incidents. 
  3. Excessive sleepiness and irritability during the day. We all get tired during the day once in a while. If you're tired every day or find yourself irritable more often than not, you might not be sleeping well at night. Specifically, your apnea episodes might be waking you up during REM sleep, which means you're not doing a lot of dreaming, which means you're not getting a lot of the most restful sleep. Which brings us to:
  4. You have a hard time remembering whether you dreamed. We all go through times when we knew we dreamed at night but we can't remember our dreams. That's normal. If you go a long time and can't remember even having a dream, you may be experiencing interruptions during the dreaming phase of your sleep cycle. 
  5. Morning headache. One of the big signs your brain has not gotten as much oxygen as it should (which will happen when you stop breathing several times each night), is the morning headache. Make sure you didn't drink a lot the night before, because that can also give you a morning headache. Check for vodka. If you're clear, the issue may be apnea!
If you have a couple of these symptoms, don't mess around with them. Talk to your doctor. Ask them to set you up for a sleep test. There are two different types of test -- either at a sleep center or at home. Your doctor will let you know which one is best for the symptoms you describe but you don't have to worry. Neither sleep test is painful and both are very easy to take. Basically, you're going to sleep for a few hours. How easy is that? 

So. Let's say you get the tests and your do, in fact, have sleep apnea. What then? Well, your doctor is going to prescribe you a machine we call a "CPAP", which stands for continuous positive airway pressure. The machine is smaller than a showbox, usually, and pushes air through a hose into a mask you wear while you're asleep. The air keeps your airway open all night so you can get a good night's sleep. Simple. Of course, there is a variety of masks and different kinds of machines. You can sit down with your doctor and go through all the details to get the machine and the mask that works best for you.

The thing to remember here is that your CPAP is designed to let you sleep the way you should. It may seem like a nuisance at first (or even if you're an experienced CPAP user!), but it helps. You can, of course, do other things to help as well. Side-sleeping seems to help people with sleep apnea rest better, with fewer sleep interruptions according to a couple different studies. We happen to know a good pillow for side-sleeping folks, which, as it happens, works very well for people who need to wear CPAP headgear at night! Kind of handy how that worked out, isn't it?

The conclusion here is that sleep apnea is a serious condition that plenty of people have. If you think you may have it, don't wait around for it to fix itself and don't think you have to suffer because that's just how it is. Talk to your doctor. Get the sleep test. Get your CPAP machine. Get a good night's sleep on a comfortable pillow made for side-sleepers just like you.