In obstructive sleep apnea, the muscles and tissues in the lower throat collapse, blocking the flow of air to the lungs. The sleeper may stop breathing for 10 seconds or longer. Oxygen levels in the blood drop, triggering an alarm in the brain that stirs the sleeper to resume breathing. The cycle can repeat many times an hour. When breathing stops, the nervous system triggers a spike in blood pressure. And the combination of lost sleep and repeated bouts of oxygen deprivation can inflame the coronary arteries. That inflammation, plus the blood pressure spikes, may cause heart attacks and strokes by damaging blood vessels.
While overweight men face the highest risk, women and normal weight people can also develop sleep apnea. So every snorer should be alert to these signs:
- Learning from a spouse, partner, or roommate that during sleep you struggle for breath and appear to stop breathing completely at times.
- Waking up tired, even after a full seven or eight hours in bed.
- Suffering morning headaches.
- Struggling to stay awake at work, behind the wheel, or while relaxing.
- Finding it difficult to concentrate.
If you have any of those symptoms, talk with your doctor. To diagnose the condition, you have to undergo an overnight sleep study that monitors brain activity, breathing, carbon dioxide and oxygen levels in the blood, and heart rate and rhythm. It's now possible to have a sleep study in your own home, and our consultants say that's a good option for patients who don't live near a sleep lab or who face a long waiting list for testing. But it's better to get a lab-based test because it's more thorough.