Sleep Apnea Treatment – Is CPAP Your Only Option?
Sleep apnea treatment is a topic of much controversy. However, before treatment methods can be understood it is important to first understand exactly what sleep apnea is.
What Is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a common sleeping disorder that affects as many as 1 in 15 Americans and millions of people worldwide according to a 1993 study by the Wisconsin Sleep Cohort. It is characterized by interruptions in breathing and/or episodes of very shallow breathing during sleep.
Often due to mechanical blockages in the windpipe and sometimes due to neurological disorders, each pause in breathing (referred to as an apnea) can last from a few seconds to a few minutes. These interruptions in breathing can occur 30 times or more per hour and hundreds of times per night.
Sleep apnea is generally a chronic condition when not treated and often disrupts sleep nightly. Each time breathing is interrupted, a person must wake up enough for the muscles of the windpipe to contract and resume breathing. Many people wake gasping for air or with a loud snort and/or choking sound.
The constant interruptions and waking to restore breathing results in very shallow sleep and the body is never able to spend much time in the deep, restorative sleep that is needed for maintaining good health.
The condition can often go unnoticed because many people aren’t aware their breathing is stopping throughout the night unless they wake abruptly gasping for air. It is often a family member or other loved one who recognizes something is wrong.
In severe cases, sleep apnea can be life threatening, although sleep apnea treatments do exist. The most common treatment for sleep apnea is continuous positive airflow pressure (CPAP), although there are many drawbacks to this method that make it a poor alternative for many people.
Recently, alternative sleep apnea treatments are gaining popularity for those who require options other than CPAP machines.
Types Of Sleep Apnea And Sleep Apnea Causes
Three forms of sleep apnea are currently recognized. These are central sleep apnea (CSA), obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), and complex or mixed sleep apnea which is a combination of CSA and OSA. Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common, comprising approximately 84% of cases. Central sleep apnea, on the other hand, is rare, making up just 0.4% of cases.
Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when there is a physical block to airflow. It is often caused when soft tissues at the back of the throat relax and cause airflow to be blocked during sleep. The result of the blockage is often loud snoring which results from airflow squeezing through a reduced or collapsed windpipe.
When airflow stops, the blood oxygen level of your body drops, and your brain wakes you just enough to resume breathing. In most cases, people with OSA are unaware of these awakenings.
Central sleep apnea results from a disorder in the central nervous system rather than from airflow blockage. In CSA, the brain fails to send signals to the muscles needed to perform breathing. A person with CSA simply doesn’t try to breathe for brief periods of time due to the missing signals.
People who suffer from central sleep apnea rarely snore, but may be more aware of waking events throughout the night.
Complex or mixed sleep apnea is a combination of both OSA and CSA with breathing interruptions resulting from both airflow blockage and disturbances in the central nervous system.
Normally the muscles of the throat keep the airway tight and stiff so airflow into the lungs is not disrupted. During sleep, these muscles slightly relax, but in people who experience normal sleep cycles the relaxation isn’t enough to cause airflow blockage.
However, people with sleep apnea experience blocked or narrowed air passages for many different reasons. Some of these sleep apnea causes include:
- Having throat and tongue muscles that relax more than normal during sleep
- Having tongue and tonsil tissues that are large in relation to the opening of the windpipe (this is often the case when children experience sleep apnea)
- Being overweight and or obese. Extra fat tissues can thicken the wall of the windpipe and reduce the inner opening. It is recommended for sleep apnea sufferers to control their weight through programs like the Diet Solution.
- Aging can reduce the ability of your brain to pass the proper signals to your throat muscles to keep them stiff during sleep
Sleep Apnea Symptoms
So how do you know if you suffer from sleep apnea?
The condition can be difficult to diagnose because many people are unaware of their symptoms. Sleep apnea symptoms can persist for years as people simply get used to them and don’t realize they have a sleeping disorder.
If you think you may have sleep apnea, it is best to receive proper diagnosis through a medically conducted polysomnogram (sleep study). Doctors are generally unable to recognize the condition during routine office visits and there are no blood tests to detect the disorder.
Sleep apnea symptoms generally include some or all of the following:
- Excessive daytime tiredness due to lack of deep sleep
- Loud and chronic snoring, particularly when sleeping on your back
- Tendency to fall asleep at random times or while driving
- Headaches and dry throat in the morning
- Difficulty concentrating
- Depression, mood swings, and general irritability
- Night time urination
- Angry or hostile behavior
Who Is At Risk Of Having Sleep Apnea?
The quick and simple answer is: anyone can get sleep apnea, including both adults and children.
Although there is no single poster child for sleep apnea, people who exhibit certain characteristics seem to be more prone to the condition than others. People who are most likely to suffer from sleep apnea include those who:
- Are overweight and/or obese
- Are over the age of 65
- Are male
- Are African American, Hispanic, or Pacific Islander
- Have a family history of sleep apnea
- Have naturally smaller airways in their nose, throat, or mouth
- Have high blood pressure
- Are prone to smoking
- Have metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and other related conditions
Although both men and women suffer from sleep apnea, the condition is more common in men. Women are more likely to suffer from sleep apnea during pregnancy and after menopause due to hormonal changes.
Sleep Apnea Treatment Methods
Sleep apnea treatment is often a critical and ongoing process. If left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to serious health issues.
People who have sleep apnea are more prone to things like high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, heart failure, irregular heart beats, and a host of other health related problems that come from being constantly tired.
As mentioned previously, the most commonly prescribed treatment for sleep apnea is continuous positive airflow pressure (CPAP). Treating sleep apnea in this way requires a person to wear a mask over their nose and/or their mouth and nose while they sleep.
The mask is attached to a CPAP machine via a hose. The CPAP machine gently pumps air into a person’s throat while they sleep, thereby keeping the airway open.
CPAP Side Effects
Although CPAP machines have been effective at treating sleep apnea in many cases, they simply aren’t practical for all people. Many people suffer from feelings of claustrophobia that result from wearing the mask and being tethered to the machine via a hose.
Other CPAP side effects include dry mouth and throat, stuffy and/or dry nose, irritated facial skin, headaches, and even stomach bloating. Many people can never get used to the CPAP machine even after months of trying. When this is the case, alternative sleep apnea treatments may be recommended.
One simple sleep apnea treatment that can make a big difference is to try sleeping on your side rather than your back. Doing so helps keep the throat open.
Other simple sleep apnea treatments that can improve symptoms include:
- Avoiding medications or alcohol that can make you sleepy and make it more difficult to keep your throat open
- Losing weight by following a program such as the Diet Solution
- Using nasal sprays and/or breathe right strips to help keep your nasal passages open at night
- Quit smoking. Help with this is available through the Quit Smoking Today program
- Special dental mouth pieces that adjust the lower jaw and tongue to keep airways open during sleep
For more severe cases of sleep apnea, mouth or throat surgery may be the most successful sleep apnea treatment option. However, these are often painful and may come with complications.
Before CPAP and/or surgery are considered, it’s highly recommended that alternative sleep apnea treatments be explored. Many doctors have been trained to offer CPAP as the only solution (largely due to connections with insurance companies), but many people are having great success following alternative solutions.
Independent sleep apnea researcher, Marc MacDonald, does an excellent job of describing alternative sleep apnea treatments and providing real life case studies of people who have been successful at curing sleep apnea through these methods. We highly recommend his best selling ebook, “Cure Your Sleep Apnea Without CPAP”.
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