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What to Know About Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a relatively common sleeping disorder but one that is important to manage for a patient’s overall health.

What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a disorder 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 Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames. It is at this center, which is nationally accredited by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, where sleep tests are performed and reviewed by staff.

When Should I Get a Sleep Test?

Patients often come to the center for a sleep test to diagnose potential sleep apnea if they suffer from a cardiovascular condition, says Edward Clemmons, MD, a neurologist at McFarland Clinic. Dr. Clemmons recommends watching out for other symptoms, including…

  • Snoring
  • Morning headaches
  • Depression
  • Ongoing sleepiness and fatigue during the day.
  • History of stroke or atrial fibrillation

Also, if a sleeping partner has ever noticed that you’ve stopped breathing at night, that is a strong indicator of sleep apnea.

How Can I Get a Sleep Test?

The Sleep Disorders Center has an open campus policy, meaning any physician can order a sleep test for their patient at the center. Dr. Clemmons works with a patient’s primary doctor on diagnosing sleep apnea and offering treatment recommendations.

What Are the Treatments for Sleep Apnea?

There are several treatment options for sleep apnea, and recommendations differ depending on the severity of an individual’s condition. Treatment options can include…

  • Making lifestyle changes
  • Managing related diseases
  • Using an oral appliance
  • Having surgery
  • Using a PAP (positive airway pressure) device

Making Lifestyle Changes

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.

Managing Related Diseases

Managing a cardiovascular issue, like congestive heart failure, can also help to improve sleep apnea; alternatively, if a patient can better manage their sleep apnea, it often improves their cardiovascular condition, making it easier to manage as well.

Using Dental Appliances

Before considering one of the more invasive treatment options, patients may also try using a dental appliance to improve their condition if they are diagnosed with mild to moderate sleep apnea.

Surgery for Sleep Apnea

For patients with moderate to severe sleep apnea that isn’t alleviated by lifestyle changes, PAP therapy, or dental appliances, surgery may be a solution but usually only after an adequate trial of PAP therapy. Dr. Clemmons stresses that while surgery will likely help to a certain degree, it does not offer a cure for most patients suffering from sleep apnea. There are newer devices that stimulate nerves in the tongue to help open the airway. These devices require a trial of PAP therapy, adequate body weight, and moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea.

Using a PAP Machine

The best cure for sleep apnea, says Dr. Clemmons, and the main option for those suffering from moderate to severe sleep apnea, is to use a PAP device. This device pneumatically splints your airway while you sleep, increasing the air pressure in your throat so your airway doesn’t collapse at night. If worn properly and on a nightly basis, a PAP machine is usually very effective at treating sleep apnea.

Unfortunately, Dr. Clemmons adds, this treatment is also the most difficult for patients to continue in the long run. It is 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. Dr. Clemmons stresses that it is important to offer continuous support to patients using a PAP machine as well as ongoing education on their condition and what could happen if it remains untreated. Sleep specialists should also do an annual re-evaluation of PAP machine settings and make adjustments as appropriate.

What Happens if I Don't Manage Sleep Apnea?

For individuals who assume forgoing treatment will just leave them a little tired the next day, Dr. Clemmons addresses what’s at stake.

“Disruption of airflow at night is not just bad for sleeping – it’s bad for the body,” he says.

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 bad for a person’s heart and brain. Changes in the body caused by sleep apnea can lead to heart failure and an irregular heart rhythm (atrial fibrillation). 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 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 care provider 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.

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