Sleep apnoea, a medical condition that occurs when a person's breathing is interrupted while they sleep, made headlines this summer when it was announced that the disorder was a contributing factor in actor and writer Carrie Fisher's death. Though there were also drug-related factors involved in the icon’s passing, the news briefly put the underdiagnosed condition in the spotlight.
According to Dr Rochelle Goldberg, news connecting a celebrity’s death to a common condition like sleep apnoea often makes people question if they might have it, too. But sleep apnoea isn't something that should only receive attention when a well-known person is found to have it. Despite what you may have heard about the condition, it affects men and women of all ages and weights—and it’s potentially life-threatening.
When you stop breathing, even if it’s just for a moment, your body goes into emergency mode to keep you alive: your adrenal glands secrete adrenaline, your blood pressure spikes, and your heart rate increases. If this happens regularly while you sleep, it can increase your risk for high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, heart attack and stroke, Goldberg says.
If you’re concerned that you might have sleep apnoea, take a few moments to consider if you identify with any of the symptoms below. If you do, make an appointment with a physician for a professional diagnosis.
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Your partner says you snore or gasp in your sleep.
When you go to bed, all of your muscles relax, including the air path at the back of your throat. If that path becomes too small or "floppy," air struggles to get through, Goldberg says. As a result, you may gasp or choke in your sleep. However, unless someone tells you they’ve witnessed this happening, you may be in the dark. Physical signs of interrupted breathing aren’t always something that wakes you up, Goldberg says.
A “floppy” air path can also cause the muscles surrounding it to vibrate, resulting in a snoring sound. It’s another tricky symptom to identify because unless someone tells you, you won’t know that it’s happening. “When we’re asleep, we don’t know what we’re doing, but a witness may say, ‘Boy, that snoring is bad,’” Goldberg says. Keep in mind that snoring isn’t always related to sleep apnoea and not everyone who has sleep apnoea snores. But if you experience snoring as well as other symptoms on this list, you should speak to your doctor.
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You’re always tired.
Deep, REM (rapid eye movement) sleep relaxes your body so you can get the rest you need. But if you stop breathing at night, your body’s emergency responses will push you into a lighter stage of sleep so it can tell your muscles to tighten up and help you breathe. Less time spent in a deep, rejuvenating sleep, means you’ll likely wake up feeling tired and groggy. You may also experience irritability, increased hunger and find it difficult to concentrate.
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You always wake up to use the bathroom.
While you may just have to lay off the beverages before bedtime, waking up to use the bathroom could be a sign that you have sleep apnoea. When the body is constantly making an effort to help you breathe, it releases a hormone that can cause increased urination. However, the only way to figure out whether your nighttime bathroom trips are related to sleep apnoea is to talk to your doctor.
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If you’ve been experiencing some of these symptoms, there’s no need for an emergency trip to the doctor, Goldberg says, but you should voice your concerns next time you have a checkup. Alternatively, you could make an appointment at a sleep center. If your doctor thinks you might have the condition, she’ll either recommend that you sleep under medical observation or use a home testing device to measure your sleep patterns.
Thankfully, if you do have sleep apnoea, it’s very treatable. One of the most common ways to address it is with a CPAP machine that you wear at night to help you breathe. For patients who, for whatever reason, don’t want to wear them, Goldberg says there are other options like mouth appliances and surgery, which stimulates a nerve to make the tongue steer clear of your air path while you sleep. Not only will treating sleep apnoea make you happier, but it’ll also help you feel more energised and productive each day. And who doesn’t want that?
First published: 10 Aug 2017