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Your quality of sleep can tell you a lot about your health. If you frequently wake up during the night, have difficulty staying asleep, struggle with daytime fatigue, snore or even stop breathing in your sleep, you might have a condition called sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is a potentially serious disorder that causes your breathing to become interrupted repeatedly during sleep. There are several types of sleep apnea, but the most common is obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA, which occurs when there is a blockage in your airway that reduces or completely cuts off airflow.

Signs and Symptoms

Symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea can be mild or severe, ranging from loud snoring and excessive daytime sleepiness, to more serious signs such as high blood pressure, decreased libido and even depression. Common symptoms include:

  • Sore/dry throat
  • Waking up choking or gasping for air
  • Loud snoring
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Restless sleep
  • Lack of energy
  • Trouble focusing
  • Morning headaches
  • Forgetfulness, irritability and mood swings

Because sleep is crucial to nearly every bodily function, system and organ, obstructive sleep apnea can also elevate your risk for other conditions, or complicate existing ones, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other conditions.

Several cardiovascular conditions can occur with untreated obstructive sleep apnea. For example, if you have obstructive sleep apnea, you are more likely to have high blood pressure (hypertension) or it may be difficult to control your blood pressure. Among hypertension sufferers, about 30% have obstructive sleep apnea. If you have obstructive sleep apnea, there is a 50% chance you also have hypertension.

Testing and Treatment

To test for obstructive sleep apnea, your physician may refer you directly in or to a specialist to conduct a sleep apnea test. An in-lab polysomnogram, or sleep study, is a comprehensive test that transmits and records specific physical activities while you sleep, such as your heart rate and rhythm, sleep pattern, breathing, brainwave activity, eye movement, and oxygen levels through a series of electronic sensors placed on your legs, head and chest. Home sleep studies are limited to breathing-related sleep disorders.

If you are diagnosed with OSA, there are a variety of treatments your doctor may recommend based on the severity of your condition:

  • Most patients find relief with a CPAP machine—a device that includes a mask that covers your nose or mouth. While you sleep, the CPAP machine forces constant air through your nose and/or mouth to keep your upper airway from relaxing and closing during sleep. When used properly, PAP therapy is nearly 100% effective
  • In cases where a device or other therapy won’t resolve the issue, surgery may be necessary to remove excess tissue, reconstruct the jawbone or facial muscles, or otherwise make adjustments to open up the throat.
  • Mild sufferers may receive a dental appliance that keeps your tongue from blocking your airway, or an oral “mandibular” device that brings your lower jaw forward to improve airflow.
Man snoring in bed

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