Sleep apnea is a dangerous sleep disorder that interferes with healthy breathing patterns during sleep. It is characterized by snoring, which may be so loud that it affects the sleep quality of bed partners. Having sleep apnea can put a strain on relationships, cause daytime fatigue, and even lead to other secondary conditions like depression. Worse, severe cases of sleep apnea can be life threatening.
Though snoring is a primary symptom of sleep apnea, not all people who snore actually have sleep apnea. As much as 50 percent of Americans snore at some time, whether occasionally or chronically. However, only 20 percent of American adults have sleep apnea. So how do you know the difference? Harmless snoring does not interfere with breathing patterns. Sleep apnea, on the other hand, causes breathing cessations and sometimes ‘gasping’ during sleep.
You may need to see a doctor if you or your partner have been awakened by your chronic snoring and/or gasping for air. Though this condition can be very dangerous, your doctor can help you discover ways of managing sleep apnea and protecting healthy breathing during sleep.
Your doctor’s first goal will be to determine whether your snoring is benign or a symptom of sleep apnea. This may be determined by speaking with you and your partner about your symptoms. If you do not have a partner who can confirm snoring or breathing interruptions, your doctor may request a sleep study.
There are many ways of treating the symptoms of sleep apnea. This may include conservative approaches, such as a new sleeping position or the use of an oral appliance. If your apnea symptoms are severe or conservative treatments are not working, you may be prescribed a continuous positive airway pressure device (CPAP) to open the airway. In severe cases, surgery may be necessary. Keep in mind that a diagnosis of sleep apnea is not always permanent. Many patients find that losing weight can be an effective way of opening the airway during sleep.