Sleep Apnea: Is It Life Threatening?
Work and daily activities present plenty of challenges for everyone, but waking up exhausted and dragging through the day can make life overwhelming. People who suffer from sleep apnea fight with feelings of lethargy, brain fog, lack of interest, and a range of other physical, mental and psychological conditions. Sleep apnea makes living your life an uphill battle, but can you die from sleep apnea?
Death is among the potential outcomes associated with chronic, untreated sleep apnea. However, of the estimated 22 million Americans who suffer from sleep apnea, less than 0.2 percent actually die from causes directly complicated by the condition. The good news is that sleep apnea is relatively easy to diagnose and there are a wide range of behavioral changes and treatment options that not only remove its threat on your life, but also conquer the effects it has on your lifestyle.
What Is Sleep Apnea?
In the simplest terms, sleep apnea is a disorder that interrupts a person’s breathing while they are asleep. These interruptions can occur several times throughout a sleep cycle or hundreds of times in more severe cases. Sleep apnea has easily identifiable causes, symptoms, and consequences.
Researchers have identified two main causes of sleep apnea interruptions: obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and central sleep apnea (CSA). OSA involves some sort of blockage in the airway, which occurs during sleep, most commonly the collapse of soft tissue during sleep. In contrast, CSA is a failure of the brain to properly signal the muscles involved in respiration. Fortunately, OSA is the more common of the two types and it is also the easiest to treat.
Because of the numerous sleep interruptions during the sleep cycle, sleep apnea symptoms are similar to those of a person who suffers from insomnia. According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), symptoms include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Sexual dysfunction
- Learning and memory difficulties
- Falling asleep while at work, on the phone, or driving
Physical indicators sometimes identified in connection with sleep apnea also include waking up with a sore throat or a headache, and choking or gasping sensations when awakened during the sleep cycle.
Because of the breathing interruptions of sleep apnea, the brain, the heart and various other parts of the body do not receive enough oxygen. The immediate result is a reduction in proper organ function, which if left untreated, can lead to critical failures. The American Alliance for Healthy Sleep (AAHS) notes that the long-term consequences of oxygen deprivation from sleep apnea include high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, pre-diabetes and diabetes, and depression.
Who Is at Risk?
Identifying individuals who have the highest risk for sleep apnea aids in the diagnosis process. The major contributor is excessive weight, “but sleep apnea can occur in slim people too,” the AAHS is careful to point out. Along with excessive weight, other risk factors include:
- Large neck size (over 17″ in men or 16″ in women)
- More common during middle age
- More common in males
- Hypertension is a common factor
- Family history of sleep apnea
Individuals who present with the symptoms listed earlier combined with those who fall within these categories of risk have a higher risk of sleep apnea death from its associated complications or its other negative health effects.
Presenting a list of symptoms that are consistent with sleep apnea as well as a record of the various levels of drowsiness and fatigue experienced by the patient throughout the day are a beginning point in sleep apnea diagnosis and treatment. A physician suspecting sleep apnea will order a sleep study or polysomnography. Completion of this study might include either a sleep monitor worn on the wrist during sleep or a full laboratory analysis requiring an overnight stay in a sleep lab. This study helps to identify the type and severity of the condition in order to assign treatment.
The options available for treating various degrees of sleep apnea include behavioral changes, devices and appliances, and surgery in some severe cases. Behavioral changes for less severe cases commonly include weight loss, quitting smoking, and avoiding alcohol, but might also include sleeping on your side instead of your back. Dental appliances that reposition the lower jaw and tongue are a device option with some success and upper airway surgical options are also successful.
In most cases, the treatment of choice is continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device. NSF explains that “CPAP is a mask that fits over the nose and/or mouth, and gently blows air into the airway to help keep it open during sleep. This method of treatment is highly effective.” This approach is most effective treating obstructive sleep apnea.
Adaptive servo ventilation (ASV) serves to correct sleep apnea issues as well, and is a common treatment option among patients with central sleep apnea. The American Association of Sleep Technologists (AAST) provides a description of this therapy. “Unlike the fixed pressure of a CPAP machine, ASV allows for the pressure to adjust continuously and to trigger breathing when needed according to the patient’s breathing patterns. This makes ASV particularly useful for patients with central sleep apnea.”
Sleep apnea can cause you to experience extreme fatigue and makes it difficult to concentrate on work, school, or other daily tasks. Struggling with these effects disrupts your lifestyle, but can you die from sleep apnea? Though the percentage of deaths directly related to sleep apnea is low (less than 0.2 percent), it can exacerbate other health problems and lead to the development of critical diseases and conditions. Sleep apnea is easy to diagnose and treat. If you present the risks and or symptoms associated with this condition learn more about the various treatment options available to correct the issue before it causes critical damage.