Understanding Symptoms and Treatments of Sleep Apnea

Understanding Symptoms and Treatments of Sleep Apnea

A very common condition in the U.S., sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder that interferes with the breathing while people are asleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleep apnea affects more than 18 million American adults. The NSF estimates that the disorder also affects between two to three percent of children, and the prevalence among children who snore heavily may be as high as 10 to 20 percent.

There are several treatments available for sleep apnea that can help people to handle the symptoms. In addition, people who are diagnosed with sleep apnea might also receive lifestyle change recommendations.

What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a disorder in which the breathing stops and starts intermittently while people are sleeping. There are three main types of sleep apnea with which people might be diagnosed.

Obstructive sleep apnea is the most frequently diagnosed type of the disorder. In this form of sleep apnea, the throat muscles relax while people are sleeping and obstruct their airways, causing them to momentarily stop breathing until they startle enough to begin breathing again.

Central sleep apnea is less common. In this form of sleep apnea, the brain fails to send signals to the body to breathe. This may cause people to awaken and to feel short of breath when they do.

The third form of sleep apnea is called complex sleep apnea syndrome. People who have this disorder have a combination of obstructive and central sleep apnea.

Signs and Symptoms

The National Institutes of Health identifies the following signs and symptoms of sleep apnea:

  1. Loud gasping or snoring during sleep
  2. Periods of absent or reduced breathing during sleep
  3. Excessive fatigue during the day
  4. Deficits in cognitive skills, motor skills, attention, visuospatial skills, and vigilance during the waking hours
  5. Headaches or dry mouth upon waking
  6. Waking up frequently at night to urinate
  7. Decreased libido

People who experience these symptoms should see their doctors to get proper diagnoses.

Causes and Risk Factors

There are several causes and risk factors that can lead to the development of sleep apnea, including medical conditions and genetic factors. Some people may be born with large tonsils that obstruct the airways when they sleep. Others may have certain endocrine disorders that can cause sleep apnea, including hypothyroidism, acromegaly, and polycystic ovarian disease.

Hypothyroidism may cause sleep apnea because the hormones that the thyroid gland produces help to control breathing, and people who have the disorder produce low levels of the hormones. Acromegaly is a disorder in which people produce too much growth hormone, which can lead to changes in the bones in their face and an enlargement of structures. Women who have PCOS have hormonal problems that can lead them to become obese, and obesity is a common cause of sleep apnea.

In addition to medical conditions and structural factors, people may also have other risk factors for developing sleep apnea. Being overweight or obese is a very common cause of sleep apnea. People who suffer from kidney or heart failure may have a buildup of fluid in their necks that can cause sleep apnea. Neuromuscular conditions such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, stroke, and myotonic dystrophy may also cause sleep apnea. Finally, certain genetic disorders such as cleft palate and Down’s Syndrome have also been associated with an increased likelihood of developing sleep apnea.


People are commonly diagnosed with sleep apnea after their doctors review their medical histories, give them physical exams, and have them undergo sleep studies.

The doctors may first interview the patients and gather information about their medical histories, including their symptoms, their family histories, and any complications that they might be experiencing. The doctors may then conduct physical examinations, during which they will look for such things as enlarged tonsils, obesity, the neck circumference, and the size of the jaw and tongue. If the doctors believe that it is possible that the patients have sleep apnea, they may be referred to a sleep specialist to undergo sleep studies.

Treatment Options

People who are diagnosed with sleep apnea may receive several different treatment recommendations from their doctors. They may be encouraged to make healthy lifestyle changes such as losing weight and quitting smoking. If people have nasal allergies, they may also be prescribed allergy medications.

People who have more severe forms of sleep apnea may receive additional treatment recommendations. Their doctors might recommend that they use breathing devices while they sleep such as a continuous positive airway pressure machine. This is a device that delivers air to people while they sleep through a mask. People might also be told to wear oral prosthetics while they sleep that physically keep their airways open.

If the other treatments have failed, the Mayo Clinic reports that doctors might recommend surgery to remove excess tissue. Doctors might also try shrinking enlarged tissue using a procedure called radiofrequency ablation. Jaw repositioning might also be used to move the jaw bones forward from the other facial bones to give more space for the airways. Finally, doctors might recommend that people undergo a tracheostomy to create a new airway if other treatment options have failed.

If the tonsils are enlarged, they may be removed during a tonsillectomy procedure. People who are severely obese may also undergo bariatric surgery to help them lose weight.

According to RxList.com, doctors generally do not prescribe medications as a primary treatment for sleep apnea. However, people may be prescribed medications to help them to manage some of their daytime symptoms. They might be prescribed drugs such as modafinil to help them to be more awake during the day. At night, they may be prescribed medications to help them to sleep such as benzodiazepines including diazepam or lorazepam. In cases in which people have chronic sinus issues that lead to sleep apnea, their doctors might recommend that they take over-the-counter nasal decongestants such as pseudoephedrine.

Sleep apnea affects millions of people in the U.S. and can be potentially serious. With proper treatment and lifestyle changes, it is possible for people to manage their symptoms so that they can enjoy improved qualities of life.