Do I Have Obstructive Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea can be really sneaky. I think a lot of people mistakenly believe that they would notice when they wake up all night long. In actuality, patients often don’t realize their breathing repeatedly stops throughout the night. They just know they’re sleepy during the day.
Most of the time, people with sleep apnea don’t wake up fully; they just enter a very light sleep as their airway constricts and oxygen levels drop. Not getting enough restorative sleep can cause a host of risky health problems, from high blood pressure to dangerous driving. Do you suspect you suffer from sleep apnea? Here are important symptoms and clues that help me as a doctor make a diagnosis.
What is Sleep Apnea?
Obstructive sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that causes you to stop breathing repeatedly in your sleep. There are several types of apnea, but obstructive apnea is the most common.
During sleep, your airway collapses. Picture drinking a soda through a straw. If that straw collapses, you can’t get as much liquid through. That’s similar to what happens in sleep apnea when you’re sleeping. Your airway collapses and you can’t get enough air through.
What happens over time, as you move deeper into sleep, those airway muscles start collapsing and lose their tone, causing your airway to close and you stop breathing. That drops your oxygen levels, which sends warning signals to your brain so you wake up. As you become more conscious and go into a lighter sleep, your airway muscles regain their tone and open so you can breathe normally again.
That happens repeatedly throughout the night. Some people wake up as much as 30 times a night and never really reach that deep restorative REM sleep. They wake up feeling completely exhausted like they haven’t slept all night long.
Symptoms of Sleep Apnea
When patients come to me, I often hear things like: I’m so tired all day long; I feel like I need to take a nap every day; it’s really hard to get through my afternoon; and any time I’m not actively engaged with something I find myself wanting to fall asleep.
There are also some more subtle indicators I hear from patients, and I think this is where the diagnosis sometimes gets missed. People complain about irritability, unexplained mood swings, or depression. They think they may have clinical depression or that it’s stress, when in reality they’re just chronically sleep deprived.
Unexplained high blood pressure is another common symptom of sleep apnea. If there’s no family history, the patient is young and otherwise healthy, they exercise but their blood pressure is slightly high and doesn’t respond to medication, that’s a clue they may have sleep apnea.
Who Develops Obstructive Sleep Apnea?
While anyone can get sleep apnea, there’s a specific patient type that’s more susceptible to developing the condition. Obstructive sleep apnea is more common in people who are overweight and people with specific anatomic structures throughout the nose, pharynx, neck and upper chest. If you naturally have a thick neck and burly chest, overweight or not, that alone can lead to apnea.
Quite a few people with sleep apnea suffer from ear, nose or throat (ENT) problems. They may experience issues like enlarged tonsils or adenoids in what’s already a really narrow opening. When they lie down and go to sleep, those muscles relax and their airway starts to collapse.
Is it Fatigue or Sleepiness?
A lot of patients come into my office with complaints of fatigue and feeling tired all day, in particular busy moms who are working or have multiple kids at home with them. They’re going nonstop all day long, the kids are waking up early and they can’t get any free time until after bedtime, so of course they feel exhausted.
Sheer exhaustion is something I commonly see, so I wouldn’t want to jump to the conclusion that all of those patients have sleep apnea. So I have to determine: What kind of tired do they have? Is it fatigue where they have low energy and feel overwhelmed, or is it sleepiness where they have the urge to fall asleep all of the time?
Sleepiness is a more suspicious symptom for sleep apnea than general fatigue where everything feels heavy and hard to do. As soon as the kids take a nap or go to school, do they feel like they need to go back to bed? When the kids wake them up at 6 a.m., do they feel like they haven’t slept at all? It’s not just the feeling that “it’s too early” but the fact they feel like they didn’t get any sleep that leads me to suspect sleep apnea.
If you are struggling with any of these sleep apnea symptoms, please get checked by a physician. Sleep apnea can be dangerous if left untreated.
For those who’ve tried addressing this health issue with a doctor and aren’t getting answers, call Olp Family Medicine of Carmel at 317-343-0611 so we can discuss a diagnosis. As a direct primary care physician, I can devote the time you deserve so you get proper treatment and feel better rested.