Sleep, Interrupted

More than just disruptive, snoring may signal a dangerous sleeping disorder

WRITTEN BY Robin Howard

If you’re a snorer, family may rib you about sounding like a buzz saw, but noisy sleep is no laughing matter. In fact, snoring could be a sign that your upper airway is blocked, a dangerous condition known as obstructive sleep apnea.

One in 15 adults has at least a moderate case of this potentially serious disorder in which airways repeatedly close off and breathing stops during sleep. When that happens, a person’s oxygen levels drop, sometimes dangerously low, and their heart rate increases, causing the brain to wake up. These episodes can occur up to 100 times an hour. While most people don’t remember waking every few minutes (or seconds), they’ll likely rouse each morning feeling tired, irritable, moody, anxious or depressed.

Amber Hoffman, a registered polysomnographic technologist (sleep specialist) for Roper St. Francis Healthcare, has seen the physical, mental and relationship damage sleep apnea can wreak, especially if left undiagnosed (as 80 percent of cases do). “Waking up over and over again, night after night, can lead to high blood pressure, diabetes, atrial fibrillation, heart attack and stroke,” she says. “If left untreated, it can cause brain damage and cognitive impairment.” Research shows that the condition raises the risk of premature death by as much as 46 percent.

Most people come to the sleep lab because their partner complains that they snore or stop breathing at night. As researchers continue to connect the dots between good sleep and good health, though, more healthcare providers are sending their patients for a sleep evaluation. This study can be performed in a sleep lab or at home with a finger probe, wrist strap and chest sticker that allows a sleep technician to monitor someone’s stages of sleep in real time.

While surgery, dental appliances and weight loss may help with sleep apnea, the condition is most commonly and successfully treated with a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine. A CPAP machine takes the strain off the heart by gently blowing air down the airway to keep it open. Hoffman points out that most patients initially balk at the idea of wearing a CPAP mask at night, “but once they start feeling better, they love it. They realize this is how they’re supposed to feel when they wake up.” Spouses are also pretty grateful. “When their partner stops snoring, everyone in the house gets better sleep.”

Could I have sleep apnea?

Talk to your doctor about sleep apnea if you have any of these symptoms:

• Frequent or excessive daytime sleepiness
• Loud snoring
• Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
• Morning headaches or sore throats
• Someone witnesses you stop breathing during sleep
• Choking or gasping upon waking