If you’re concerned that you may have sleep apnea, or have just been diagnosed with sleep apnea, you may be wondering how someone acquires the condition. There are a number of ways a person can develop sleep apnea, including factors both in and outside of their control. The important thing to remember is, regardless of how you came to have sleep apnea, it is a serious medical disorder that requires proper treatment. You may, however, be able to mitigate the symptoms of sleep apnea by making some adjustments to your daily routine. Let’s talk a little bit about how people get sleep apnea and what they can do to manage their condition.
Developing Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea develops when the muscles lining the back of your throat relax during the night. These muscles support the uvula, tonsils, tongue, and the side walls of your throat. When these muscles relax, they constrict your air passageways, preventing you from getting adequate respiration. When this happens during sleep, your brain will sense that you can’t breathe and will briefly rouse you so you can clear your airway and breathe again. You’ll wake up at the onset of the apnea and fall asleep again very quickly and likely won’t remember the event.
It all starts with the muscles in the throat relaxing, which can happen from a number of different causes. People with excess weight will develop fat deposits near their airway which can cause the muscles in the throat to sag, blocking your airway; this is why many people develop sleep apnea after they put on a few pounds. People with thick necks – whether naturally or through weight training – are also susceptible to developing sleep apnea. The muscles in your neck and throat will also start to sag as you get older, which explains why many elderly people have the condition.
There are several other factors that can make you more likely to develop sleep apnea than the average person. Males get the disease more often than women – though a woman’s risk of contracting sleep apnea rises after menopause – and blacks under thirty-five are more likely to develop the condition than other races of the same age. Drugs and alcohol can also relax the muscles in your throat, causing your airway to tighten over time. Tobacco users are particularly prone to developing sleep apnea, as smoking increases the amount of inflammation in your upper airway. Finally, people prone to nasal congestion will already have small airways and are more likely to experience apneas than other people.
None of these factors alone automatically signifies sleep apnea or the absence of the disease: plenty of otherwise healthy individuals simply have small airways while many elderly and overweight people don’t experience apneas at all. The only way to know for sure is to get tested, either by a doctor or with a home sleep study test.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) vs. Central Sleep Apnea (CSA)
There are two different forms of sleep apnea, and people develop and experience them a bit differently. Most people have obstructive sleep apnea, which affects people with small airways. Central sleep apnea, on the other hand, is a disorder where breathing stops because your brain doesn’t send the correct signals to the muscles in charge of managing your respiration. The factors that affect patients with OSA differ from those with CSA. Central sleep apnea patients often have the condition at birth or may develop it after a serious medical malady, such as a heart attack or a stroke; you won’t develop CSA just by gaining weight or aging. In 99% of cases, when we say sleep apnea, we’re talking about OSA, not CSA.
Managing Sleep Apnea
People suffering from sleep apnea can manage their condition by targeting some of the causes of sleep apnea. While you may not be able to make your sleep apnea disappear, you can reduce the severity of symptoms by losing weight, exercising, or abstaining from smoking. Some people see their sleep apnea correlate precisely with their weight gain and weight loss habits while others may never be able to get rid of sleep apnea entirely through lifestyle changes. For these folks, there are other medical options to help manage the condition.
Some people get surgery to open their airway wider. Others may opt for a dental implant in their jaw that helps to regulate their jaw position, which helps to maintain airflow by propping up the collapsing muscles in the neck and throat. Patients with nasal congestion sometimes use nasal pads to help keep their nasal passageways clear. The most common form of treatment, however, is continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy.
Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) Therapy
Continuous positive airway pressure therapy is the most common form of treatment for sleep apnea. CPAP has been doctor recommended for decades and remains the safest and most reliable form of treatment for OSA (CSA can be treated similarly). CPAP therapy works by directing air through the oral or nasal passageway: the positive air pressure helps keep the passageway unblocked throughout the night, allowing you to get an uninterrupted night of rest.
For successful CPAP therapy, all you need is a CPAP machine and a CPAP mask. There are a number of different machines, but each one functions basically the same by pumping positive air pressure. Your machine will be connected to a mask that seals around either your nose or your mouth via an enclosed tube. Air will travel through the tube and into the mask, where it will flow through your passageway, allowing you to breathe normally without waking. It’s a relatively simple mechanism and while it may take some getting used to at first, most people can adjust to wearing their mask at night. For those having a tough time, there are a number of comfort features that can be added to sleep apnea therapy to help make it easier to get adjusted.
Millions of people have used CPAP therapy and have reported feeling much better – just like their old selves—almost immediately after starting. The bottom line is, if you’ve developed sleep apnea, there’s no better way to treat it than continuous positive airway pressure therapy.