Sleep apnea is a relatively common sleeping disorder, but one that is important to manage for a patient’s overall health, says McFarland Clinic Neurologist Selden Spencer, M.D.
This disorder is caused by blocked or narrowed airways in your nose, mouth or throat while you sleep at night, which in turn keeps your body from receiving enough oxygen to function properly.
Sleep apnea is also a common disorder seen at the Sleep Disorders Center at the Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames, IA, a facility under the direction of Dr. Spencer. It is at this center, which is nationally accredited by the American Society of Sleep Medicine, where sleep tests are performed and reviewed by staff.
Patients often come to the center for a sleep test to diagnose potential sleep apnea if they suffer from a cardiovascular condition, says Dr. Spencer, but he also recommends watching out for other symptoms, including snoring, morning headaches, depression, and ongoing sleepiness and fatigue during the day. Of course, if a sleeping partner has ever noticed that you’ve stopped breathing at night, that is a strong indicator of sleep apnea.
While Dr. Spencer will often order a sleep test for his own patients who come to him with these symptoms, he also conducts the sleep test for other physicians’ patients. The Sleep Disorders Center has an open campus policy, meaning any physician can order a sleep test for their patient at the center. Dr. Spencer works with a patient’s primary doctor on diagnosing sleep apnea and offering treatment recommendations.
There are several treatment options for sleep apnea, and Dr. Spencer’s recommendations differ depending on the severity of an individual’s condition. Treatment options can include making lifestyle changes, managing related diseases, using nasal or dental splints, having surgery, and using a nasal CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine.
Making certain lifestyle changes – including losing weight if you are overweight, sleeping on your side and avoiding alcohol and other sedative drugs before bed – may help relieve sleep apnea, especially if you have mild sleep apnea. Effectively managing a cardiovascular issue, like congestive heart failure, can also help to alleviate sleep apnea; alternatively, if a patient is able to better manage their sleep apnea, it often improves their cardiovascular condition, making it easier to manage as well. Before considering one of the more invasive treatment options, patients may also try using a nasal or dental splint to improve their condition.
For patients with moderate sleep apnea that isn’t alleviated by lifestyle changes or simple splints, surgery may be a solution before a nasal CPAP is considered, although Dr. Spencer stresses that while surgery will likely help to a certain degree, it does not offer a cure for most patients suffering from sleep apnea.
The best cure for sleep apnea, says Dr. Spencer, and really the main option for those suffering from severe sleep apnea, is to use a nasal CPAP machine. This device pneumatically splints a person’s airway at night when they wear the machine while sleeping – essentially it increases the air pressure in your throat so your airway doesn’t collapse at night. If worn properly and on a nightly basis, a CPAP machine is usually very effective at treating sleep apnea.
Unfortunately, Dr. Spencer adds, this treatment is also the most difficult for patients to continue in the long run. Since it’s a treatment that requires daily, lifetime use, many patients can get out of the habit of using it, especially if they have a hard time adjusting to wearing the device while sleeping. That’s why it’s important to offer patients using a CPAP machine continuous support, he says, as well as ongoing education on their condition and what could happen if it remains untreated.
For individuals who assume forgoing treatment will just leave them a little tired the next day, Dr. Spencer addresses what’s really at stake.
“Disruption of air flow at night is not just bad for sleeping – it’s bad for the body,” he said.
If a person’s sleep apnea isn’t managed properly, it can be more difficult to get other health conditions, especially cardiovascular diseases, under control. A lack of oxygen at night is really bad on a person’s heart – changes in the body caused by sleep apnea can lead to heart failure and an irregular heart rhythm. Likewise, he adds, getting continuous, restful sleep allows the brain to rest so you can fully function during the day. It’s more than just feeling rested when you are awake – it really is a matter of safety. Individuals with untreated sleep apnea are much more likely to get into car accidents as a result of their sleepiness.
Individuals concerned they may have sleep apnea are encouraged to speak with their primary doctor about whether a sleep test is right for them. While managing sleep apnea can be difficult for some patients, it is a tremendous step toward improving a person’s overall health.