Obstructive Sleep Apnea: A Serious Health Problem

Medical science is constantly providing the public with more thorough information surrounding sleeping disorders. Once an abstract concept, sleeping disorders have become recognizable and, in most cases, easily and effectively treatable.

What Exactly is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) is the most common form of Sleep Apnea. People who suffer from OSA experience the interruption of breath during sleep due to a physical obstruction of the airway. Inspiration is slowed during an episode of obstructive sleep apnea when the space and quality of the upper airway is compromised. When the airway becomes completely blocked, breathing ceases.

What Causes Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

OSA occurs when the upper airway becomes blocked and breathing stops while unconscious; physical obstruction stops inspiration and can cause the airway to collapse. There are multiple parts of the airway and respiratory support system that can compromise proper airway functioning. OSA is considered to be experiencing at least five episodes of apnea during each hour of sleep.

  • Airway Obstruction Can Be Caused By:
    • Structural Abnormalities: People who suffer from structural abnormalities often develop OSA. Abnormalities in the size or shape of the skull and face, craniofacial deformities, are often accompanied by abnormalities in the size or shape of the airway.
    • Shape and Size of Tonsils: Because of the delicate location of the tonsils (the back of the throat), they can easily block the airway. The size and shape of your tonsils play a vital role in determining the size of the airway, and if the tonsils are too large or wide, they often disrupt the passage of breath.
    • Soft Palate: In the roof of the back of your mouth there are soft muscle tissues that move up and down when swallowing. This muscle mass is called the soft palate and is a large cause of apneas. The muscles in the soft palate can become too relaxed. When this happens, the palate drops down and back into the throat; blocking the airway. The muscles of the neck and upper throat support the upper airway; if the muscles are too loose in tone, gravity will pull them down into the open space of the airway.
    • Airway Collapse: The body is equipped with dilator muscles that help prevent the airway from collapsing. Physical interference and structural abnormalities can affect the functioning of the dilator muscles causing air turbulence, and eventually collapse of the upper airway.

How Can I Identify Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

Oxygen consumption is vital to the health and survival of all human beings. It is important to be able to identify the symptoms of OSA before it becomes dangerous. OSA is usually identified by witnesses; doctors and bedmates are more likely to notice the problem before the person suffering does.

  • Snoring: An apnea occurs when breathing ceases due to complete airway obstruction, but the airway can also be partially blocked. When the airway is partially blocked, breathing continues, but it is slow and shallow. The lose tissue and muscles in the throat touch slightly, and when air is pulled through the small opening vibrations occur. The vibrations are audible and result in snoring. Snoring means respiration is occurring, so it does not justify an apnea. It can, however, be a good indicator of whether or not the sleeper is susceptible to sleep apnea.
  • Shortness of Breath: Many people who suffer from OSA wake up struggling to breathe. There is generally a crescendo pattern in people who wake up struggling to breath: gasping and choking occurs when snoring sounds are at their loudest and most violent.
  • Frequent Arousals: Sleep Apnea can cause patients to wake up numerous times every night. You may not wake up during every apnea struggling to breath, but the body will respond to respiratory function interruption and oxygen deprivation. During OSA, the body is under tremendous stress. The body releases stress hormones and enters a state of “fight-or-flight”; survival becomes the body’s immediate priority and awakening will occur.
  • Daytime Sleepiness: Fatigue and sleepiness is a common indicator of OSA. Because the sleeper awakens so many times during the night, the body is not able to experience the benefits of productive sleep. People with OSA often find themselves extremely tired during waking hours, and find the need to take multiple naps.
  • Headaches: Experiencing repetitive headaches in the morning can be a sign of sleep apnea. The brain is deprived of oxygen and experiences damage. Coughing and snoring are also well-known contributors of headache pain. Most headaches associated with OSA are severe and hard to get rid of.
  • Other Common Symptoms:
    • Moodiness: Interrupted sleep directly relates to emotional stability. People who do not get enough sleep are known to be moody, emotional, and irritable.
    • Psychological Problems:  OSA is commonly mistaken as Depression because there are so many linking symptoms. Lack of energy, poor focus, emotional instability, and apathy are all symptoms of both Depression and OSA.
    • Hyperactivity: Many children who experience apneas at night are diagnosed as hyperactive due to their consistent lack of focus.
    • Leg Swelling: In some severe cases of OSA, the patient may experience swelling and subsequent discomfort in their legs.
    • Accident Prone: Lack of sleep is directly related to lack of focus. The brain does not get to repair itself and process information during sleep and cannot function properly during the day. Having a poor ability to focus will increase the likelihood of getting into an accident. Many automobile and mechanical accidents are attributed to sleep deprivation and sleep apnea.

What Kind of People Get Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

People of all colors, shapes, and sizes are susceptible to developing sleep apnea, but there are a few factors that can greatly increase an individual’s risk.

  • Weight: People who are overweight have an increased chance of experiencing OSA. The excess weight around the neck increases the amount of pressure on the throat muscles. The extra fatty tissues make it more difficult for the internal supporting muscle and tissue to keep the airway open.
  • Airway Construction: Deformities of the face and skull can dramatically change the structure of the airway. Most people with abnormalities of the face and skull experience some type of breathing problem. Some people are simply born with skinnier, smaller airways and are more likely to experience obstruction.
  • Gender: Men are considered to be more susceptible to developing OSA in their adult lives. During menopause and pregnancy, women are at a higher risk of developing the syndrome.
  • Other Ailments: Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a risk factor for sleep apnea. High blood pressure means higher levels of stress hormones in the body; these hormones prevent effective sleep. Neurological disorders are also a risk factor for developing apnea. The brain controls muscle function, and improper brain activity means improper muscle functioning.
  • Other Factors:
    • Age Group: Young children, especially newborns and toddlers, are more likely to experience OSA. The elderly are also at a higher risk.
    • Sleep Style: Sleeping on your back increases the likelihood of airway obstruction; gravity pulls throat muscles and tissues down.

Medications: People who take sedative medications like tranquilizers and muscle relaxants are extremely likely to experience over-relaxation of throat muscles.

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