Sleep Apnea: What It Is, Who Can Get It, And How To Manage It

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated July 7, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

In recent years, the essentialness of sleep has become extremely important in the field of health and wellness. Getting sufficient sleep is now mentioned alongside healthy eating and exercise as a factor for improving both physical and mental health. Sleep aids are an enormous industry, with things like relaxation and sleep story apps, mood lighting, sound machines, and other sleep-promoting devices flooding the marketplace. However, for many, sleep problems, such as sleep apnea, are caused by a physical issue. Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder that can lead to several health conditions and could be detrimental to mental health. 

Often people do not recognize they have sleep apnea and simply live with disturbed sleep patterns or insomnia. A diagnosis of this breathing disorder (followed by treatment) may give you the opportunity to manage the symptoms and get a restful night’s sleep. In this article, we’ll talk about the different types of sleep apnea, risk factors, and symptoms, and how you can get the help you need to manage this condition.

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Sleep is an important factor for health

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder characterized by pauses in breathing during sleep, often caused by obstruction in the upper airway. People with sleep apnea experience repetitive episodes of apnea (sleep interruptions) that can lead to decreased oxygen levels in the blood. Untreated sleep apnea is associated with health risks such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and even heart failure. The sleep deprivation caused by sleep apnea may also cause mental health concerns like depression and impaired cognition.

There are two main types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. The correct form of sleep apnea treatment varies depending on the severity and type of sleep apnea an individual is diagnosed with. 

For example, a sleep medicine specialist might recommend a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. CPAP machines are a standard treatment for this type of sleep disorder – they deliver pressurized air to keep the airway open during sleep and mitigate the side effects of sleep apnea. Using CPAP therapy can significantly improve sleep quality and reduce the health risks associated with untreated sleep apnea.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)

Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the breathing passage narrows or becomes obstructed due to a relaxing of the throat muscles, blocking the airflow to the lungs. This airway disturbance causes lower oxygen saturation levels and leads to fragmented sleep that is nonrestorative. OSA is the most common form of sleep apnea, with an estimated 10-30% of adults in the United States experiencing it, though many go undiagnosed. 

Central sleep apnea (CSA)

This type of sleep apnea occurs when the brain’s messages to the breathing muscles are not sent properly and breathing stops periodically without any type of physical obstruction. With CSA, a person may alternate between apneic episodes and normal breathing. Central sleep apnea is extremely rare, estimated to affect less than 1% of the population.

In some cases, a person with obstructive sleep apnea may convert to central sleep apnea during treatment. This is known as treatment-emergent sleep apnea, or complex sleep apnea.

Symptoms and causes of sleep apnea

One of the most pervasive and well-known indicators of sleep apnea is excessive daytime sleepiness, even after getting a “good night’s sleep”. Other symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • Morning headaches that may last for several hours after waking

  • Morning dry mouth

  • Loud snoring with choking or gasping sounds

  • Restless sleep, periods of wakefulness during the night

  • Increased nocturnal urination

  • Reduced focus during the day

  • Poor mood, frustration, and/or irritability

Sleep apnea can be difficult to diagnose, as several of these symptoms may be attributed to other conditions (for example, attention deficit disorder). Furthermore, the condition may not be noticed at all. For example, if a person lives and sleeps alone, they may not be aware that they snore at night.

Understanding common risk factors for the different forms of sleep apnea may be helpful. If you fall into several of these categories and notice daytime sleepiness or irritation, you might consider signing up for a sleep study.

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Risk factors for sleep apnea

A person’s risk for developing sleep apnea could depend on several factors, including genetics, personal health history, and gender. While obstructive sleep apnea was historically thought to be prevalent only in males – and is still more commonly diagnosed in males – this sleep disorder is also highly prevalent in females. However, many females live with the disorder undiagnosed.

OSA Risk Factors:

  • Anatomy of the head and neck (specifically features like a short lower jaw and larger tongue)

  • A higher body mass index (BMI)

  • Health and lifestyle factors including drinking alcohol, cigarette smoking, sleeping on the back, family history, nasal conditions, or certain heart and lung conditions 

CSA Risk Factors:

  • People over 65

  • People assigned male at birth

  • Use of opioids or prescription medications 

  • Other medical conditions, like brain infection or injury, or conditions like heart or kidney failure

If you suspect that you may be experiencing sleep apnea, it may be important to talk to your doctor about participating in a sleep study, as the condition could cause other health concerns. People with sleep apnea can be prone to high blood pressure and other complications like metabolic disorders, mood disturbances, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, or cardiovascular disease. Any lack of sleep or disturbed sleep can lead to increased drowsiness. Thus, those with sleep apnea may be at greater risk for car accidents from drowsy driving. 

How to manage sleep apnea

With diagnosis, there is treatment for sleep apnea. After speaking to your primary care doctor about your health history, you may be recommended for a sleep study. This may consist of spending the night in a lab while professionals monitor several health factors including brain waves, blood oxygen levels, heart rate, and eye and leg movement. After being diagnosed, there are some common lifestyle habits that may be recommended such as regular exercise, reducing your BMI through weight loss, reducing your alcohol consumption, or changing your sleeping position. 

Your doctor may also recommend a CPAP machine. This is short for continuous positive airway pressure, and this device sends a prescribed amount of air pressure through a mask worn over the mouth and nose to keep your airway open and prevent sleep apnea snores. A CPAP machine is used mainly for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), though it could be used in select cases of CSA. 

Therapy for better sleep

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Sleep is an important factor for health

If you are living with a sleep disorder like sleep apnea or insomnia, therapy can help you understand and cope with the mood changes and stress that come along with them. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a common and effective treatment for sleep concerns. A therapist may be able to help you address negative thought patterns that keep you awake. They can also help you implement better sleep habits, potentially leading to longer and more satisfying sleep.

For those who aren’t sleeping well, traveling to therapy appointments could be difficult or even dangerous. Online therapy may offer a convenient solution in those cases. Online therapy allows you to meet with a therapist from the comfort of your own home without the need to commute. Additionally, you can use in-app messaging to reach out to your therapist at any time – including when you’re unable to sleep – and they will respond as soon as they can.

Studies show that online therapy can be an effective treatment for sleep-related conditions. In this 2019 study, patients with insomnia were recruited and completed six weeks of online CBT. Researchers found that the CBT was effective in reducing insomnia and related symptoms for the patients, even after previous pharmacotherapy treatments were unsuccessful.

Takeaway

Researchers have found that sufficient sleep is essential to health and well-being. Poor sleep can lead to health conditions like high blood pressure and cardiac disease, metabolic conditions, and contribute to mood disorders. If you are having trouble getting a good night’s sleep, you might first speak to your primary care physician about addressing any physical concerns. If your sleep challenges are due to poor sleep hygiene or mental health conditions like depressed or anxious thoughts, a licensed therapist can help put you on the path to better sleep.
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