If you have trouble getting to sleep or sleeping through the night; if you wake up too early or have a hard time waking up; or if you are overly tired during the day, you may have a sleep-related disorder that is affecting your overall health and well-being. Sleep disorders can affect anyone of any age.
The National Institutes of Health has estimated that 50 million to 70 million Americans chronically suffer from a sleep disorder. Most of those who have a sleep-related disorder are unaware they are affected, while others who are aware choose not to seek help. The cumulative long-term effects of sleep loss and sleep disorders have been associated with a range of harmful health consequences including an increased risk of hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression, heart attack or stroke.
Sleep apnea is a potentially serious disorder that occurs when a person’s breathing is interrupted during sleep. Individuals with untreated sleep apnea stop breathing repeatedly during their sleep. There are two types of sleep apnea: obstructive and central.
Obstructive sleep apnea is the more common of the two. It is caused by a blockage of the airway, usually when the soft tissue in the back of the throat collapses during sleep. In central sleep apnea, the airway is not blocked, but the brain fails to tell the body to breathe. This type is called central apnea because it is related to the function of the central nervous system. Symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea may include snoring, daytime sleepiness, fatigue, restlessness during sleep, gasping for air while sleeping and trouble concentrating. Those with CSA may gasp for air but mostly report recurrent awakenings during the night.
If you suspect that you may have a sleep disorder, discuss your symptoms with your primary care doctor. He or she can perform a physical exam and help you identify the difficulties you are having with sleep. Keeping a sleep diary for two weeks may be helpful to your doctor. Some illnesses can cause disruptions in your sleep, so your doctor may order tests to rule out other conditions.
If your doctor suspects that you have a sleep disorder, he or she may refer you to a sleep disorder clinic. A sleep specialist will review your symptoms and may suggest that you undergo a sleep study.
A sleep study or polysomnogram is a multiple-component test that electronically transmits and records specific physical activities while you sleep. The sleep study can be done at home for select patients. The recordings become data that are analyzed by a qualified physician to determine whether or not you have a sleep disorder.
Treatment depends on the severity of the sleep-disordered breathing. Treatment options include:
• Breathing devices. Continuous positive airway pressure devices are the most common treatment for moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea. Although these devices can take some time to get used to, they are effective.
• Dental devices. Dental devices, also called oral appliances, are custom-made mouthpieces that help to position the lower jaw and tongue during sleep. Dental devices may be helpful for mild cases of obstructive sleep apnea.
• Surgery. Various surgical procedures may be recommended for severe cases of obstructive sleep apnea, but there is limited evidence for their effectiveness.
Sleep is not a simple luxury to be taken lightly; it’s is a basic necessity of life, as important to health and well-being as air, food and water.