Understanding Sleep Apnea: What It Is and How It’s Treated

Lots of people have vaguely heard of sleep apnea but fewer actually understand what it is. Some know that it is a sleep disorder of some kind – maybe something to do with snoring? – but they are not sure how who is usually affected, how it is diagnosed, how it is treated and just how much of a problem it really is.

For those who may be suffering from it without realizing it, which is a significant number, as according to the American Sleep Apnea Center about 80% of the estimated 22 million people who suffer from sleep apnea have never been formally diagnosed or treated, this lack of knowledge could be damaging their health and preventing them from leading a healthier life.

In this piece we are going to take a look at just what sleep apnea – also known medically as obstructive sleep apnea – is and why you should care.

So, What is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea – OSA – is a medical condition that can affect anyone, but is most common in men over the age of 40, that refers to the breathing obstruction that occurs when the tongue or the soft tissue located at the back of the throat ‘drop’ backwards while a person is sleeping and blocks their airway.

Sleep-disordered breathing significantly increases as we age as seen in the table below :

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30-49 10% 3%
50-70 17% 9%


For some people who suffer from sleep apnea this can be something that occurs hundreds of times a night, leading to a pause in breathing that can last anywhere from ten seconds to thirty seconds. This can mean that their brains are deprived of essential oxygen for a cumulative period of up to an hour a night. And while it is rare that these episodes alone are fatal, the long term health effects can be significant.

Sleep Apnea Statistics
Sleep Apnea Statistics

The Short Term Effects of Sleep Apnea

As previously mentioned many people are not even aware they suffer from sleep apnea, mainly because they do not even remember that the episodes occurred. They often wake up still feeling groggy and tired, or with a very dry mouth, or their partners will report that they snore loudly, or sometimes seem to gasp for breath as they sleep, but many people ignore the symptoms or even laugh them off (in the case of chronic snoring)

However the fact that they might occasionally doze off during the day, often feel like they have to nap at some point in the day and seem not to be able to concentrate properly during the day – including while they are engaged in risky activities like driving or operating machinery – may all be negative effects cause by sleep apnea.

The effects of undiagnosed apnea can also filter through into behavior and personal relationships. People whose sleep quality is impacted by sleep apnea are often more argumentative and their inability to concentrate properly often leads to poor performance at work or school.

The Long Term Effects of Sleep Apnea

If the condition is left untreated, there can be long term consequences to sleep apnea that pose a greater risk to health. Partially as a result of the periods of time that their brains are deprived of crucial oxygen on a regular basis people with sleep apnea are at a greater risk for developing a number of serious heart, vascular and brain diseases including heart attacks and other heart failure, hypertension, pulmonary hypertension and stroke.

Other research has also found a link between sleep apnea and the development of Type 2 diabetes. This seems to be related to the fact that the bodies of those with obstructive sleep apnea do not process glucose in the way they should. And this can become a vicious circle, as the weight gain that often accompanies the development of type 2 diabetes will lead to worsened obstructive sleep apnea symptoms.

Some of the more serious side effects from Sleep Apnea
Side Effects From Sleep Apnea

Treating Sleep Apnea

The good news is that once obstructive sleep apnea is diagnosed – something that is usually achieved via a simple examination and confirmed by sleep studies – it can be treated and many people find that once they do start taking the condition seriously lots of aspects of their lives improve considerably.

The treatments a person needs to help combat the effects of their sleep apnea vary according to its severity and to other complicating health factors, and the best one for each individual is something that will be decided between the individual themselves and their doctor. However, here is a look at some of the most commonly used:

For Mild or Occasional Sleep Apnea

The reason that sleep studies are very helpful in the treatment of sleep apnea is that they help determine the severity of the condition in each person, something that it is hard to gauge in any other way.

For those with only mild or occasional sleep apnea often all it takes are some simple lifestyle changes. Often those who are overweight will be helped to lose weight and they find that this helps limit their sleep apnea episodes considerably. Stopping smoking and receiving formal treatment for allergies can also be very helpful for those such things apply to.

Many people also find that something as simple as changing the position they sleep in – or even the mattress they sleep on – reduces their symptoms significantly as well.

For Serious Sleep Apnea

For those whose OSA is not relieved by the kinds of conservative measures mentioned above more intensive treatments are called for. Often a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure machine is prescribed – commonly known as a CPAP – for use at night.

A CPAP delivers pressured air via a mask as the person sleeps. It is very effective in many cases, but some people do find it very cumbersome and hard to sleep with, although recent advances in technology have created CPAP machines and CPAP masks that are smaller, less invasive and quieter.

Surgery for sleep apnea is usually only considered when all else has failed and the risks – because any surgery carries risks – do not outweigh the benefits. This may involve the removal of tissues from the back of the throat, the insertion of nerve stimulators to control tongue movement or even jaw re-positioning. Such surgeries are not common however, as most people do get the benefits they need from more conservative treatment.