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5 things you need to know about obstructive sleep apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea—a disorder where breathing stops and starts during sleep— is a common, yet serious condition. According to one study, some 30 million people may have it, though only about a fifth of them have been diagnosed. Here’s what you need to know about the disease so you can decide if you or a loved one needs to be evaluated.

  1. Men are most at risk.

Men are twice as likely as women to be diagnosed with sleep apnea. Experts estimate that 14 percent of men suffer from sleep apnea, compared with 5 to 6 percent of women. However, sex isn’t the only risk factor. Being overweight, having a family history of sleep apnea, smoking tobacco, having a large neck, and being 40-plus years old (50-plus for women) also increase the chance of being diagnosed.

  1. Symptoms can be missed or misattributed.

People who are asleep can’t hear themselves snoring and don’t wake up when they gasp for breath. If they don’t have symptoms beyond feeling tired, it can be hard to know that anything is wrong unless a spouse or partner speaks up. Symptoms can also be chalked up to something else. Using the bathroom more frequently during the night can be the sign of an aging bladder. Being unable to sleep the second half of the night can seem like a regular insomnia. However, both of these are sleep apnea symptoms.

  1. It causes short- and long-term health problems.

Obstructive sleep apnea can lead to headaches, moodiness, memory problems, and depression. Long-term effects are more serious. Patients who go without treatment are at risk of high blood pressure, heart rhythm problems, obesity, heart disease, stroke, prediabetes, and diabetes.

  1. Testing is easy.

Generally, when sleep apnea is suspected, a Sleep Medicine Department doctor meets with a patient to understand their symptoms and discuss their complete medical history. After that, the physician recommends either an at-home sleep test or an overnight study in the sleep center. A home sleep test checks for sleep apnea only, while a polysomnography is performed in a sleep center and can pick up multiple types of sleep disorders.

  1. A CPAP is the best, but not only option.

If patients do get a sleep apnea diagnosis, their doctor will likely suggest a CPAP machine. This device sends a steady stream of air through a hose and to a mask, keeping the wearer’s airway open at night. One of my favorite parts of my job is being able to help patients make their CPAP work for them. There are lots of mask options and different tips and tricks to get used to wearing them. For most patients, we’re able to find a solutions that gets them sleeping safely and comfortably.

Patients also have other options to manage their obstructive sleep apnea. Mild cases may be helped by a mandibular advancement device, which nudges the jaw forward to prevent the airway from collapsing. Weight management can help alleviate symptoms, as can quitting smoking and drinking alcohol. Surgery, Inspire® Upper Airway Stimulation, and positional therapy (sleeping on one’s side) are also options.

Sleep is vital to our health. If you have concerns about yourself or your partner, be sure to bring them up with your primary care doctor and ask for a referral.

Mary Junkin is a physician assistant in Vancouver Clinic’s Sleep Medicine Department. She enjoys educating patients about their condition and counseling individuals adapting to using a CPAP machine.