Sleep apnea is a condition affecting one in fifteen Americans, or approximately eighteen million people. Although most people associate the condition with loud snoring, sleep apnea can cause serious problems if left untreated.
What Is Sleep Apnea?
Technically, sleep apnea is best defined as an obstruction of breathing during sleep. During normal sleep, you breathe in and out through your mouth or nose. Sleep apnea obstructs the airway during sleep, which causes airflow to stop and the oxygen saturation level in the blood to drop below normal. (In fact, the official diagnosis of sleep apnea is this unsafe drop in blood oxygen level.)
This causes the sleeper to make a gurgling or choking sound in their sleep, or to suddenly stop breathing during sleep. Sleep apnea can not only impact mental health and productivity, but can also cause more substantial health problems down the road.
Findings and Symptoms
There are a few signs of sleep apnea that can be observed casually, without a technical diagnosis or a sleep study. These are findings (as opposed to symptoms) and can be a sign it’s time to seek medical attention.
Common findings include:
- Severe, loud (or “heroic”) snoring, so loud it can be heard in the other room
- A choking or gurgling sound during snoring
- Struggling to breathe at night
- The chest not moving up and down as it normally should during sleep
Other findings that may become evident to yourself or significant other:
- Chronic fatigue, needing a nap during the morning, or feeling sleepy even after a “normal” night’s sleep
- Feeling very tired upon waking
- Waking up with a morning headache that diminishes throughout the day
More long-term effects of sleep apnea could include:
- Clinical depression or anxiety (depression can itself be a symptom of sleep apnea)
- Loss of bladder control at night
- Impotence in men
More Concerning Sleep Apnea Symptoms
Without treatment, the drop in oxygen level caused by sleep apnea can cause a variety of other symptoms that are more concerning, such as:
- Higher blood pressure
- Cardiac arrhythmia
- A higher rate of congestive heart failure
If you are experiencing one or more of the above symptoms -- especially the milder symptoms -- it’s important not to jump to conclusions. These symptoms may or may not be connected to sleep apnea. Other factors (such as nasal congestion from pneumonia or a sinus infection) can lead to loud snoring, fatigue, and other symptoms similar to sleep apnea. You may wish to keep a daily journal to track changes in symptoms. If the symptoms have going on for three months or more, it may be time to seek a medical consultation. Discuss your symptoms with an ENT physician and your doctor can assess your medical history to determine if a sleep study may be needed.