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Sleep Apnea's Connection to Cardiovascular Disease

separator If you have sleep apnea, getting it treated may not only help you get better sleep. It could also help reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.

One problem with sleep apnea is that many people don't even know they have it. The most common signs of sleep apnea include

  • Loud snoring
  • Choking or gasping during sleep
  • Feeling extremely sleepy during the day, especially at work or while driving

Other less common symptoms include

  • Having headaches in the morning
  • Feeling irritable
  • Having trouble concentrating
  • Experiencing mood swings
  • Having a dry throat when you wake up in the morning
  • Urinating frequently at night

Very often, family members, especially your spouse, will be aware that you have sleep apnea before you yourself know it. That's why spouses can play such an important role in the diagnosis and treatment of this disorder. They're often the ones who persuade their partners to see a doctor about the problem.

What happens during sleep apnea?

When you have sleep apnea, your breathing either stops or becomes shallow when you're sleeping. This creates a sort of pause in your breathing, which can last 10 to 20 seconds, and sometimes more. These pauses can happen 20 to 30 times per hour.

That's a lot of interruption during sleep. And it can cause your blood pressure to rise. When you stop breathing, you're not getting as much oxygen in your body. This causes the brain to signal your nervous system to make your blood vessels tighter, so that they can increase the flow of oxygen to the heart and the brain. This creates the high blood pressure. In some people, this increased blood pressure continues even during the day, when you're breathing normally.

High blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke. You can do your best to prevent heart disease and stroke by changing all the risk factors that you are able to change, and sleep apnea is one of those, because it is treatable.

There is treatment for sleep apnea

For people with mild sleep apnea, treatment may consist of lifestyle changes, such as:

  • Avoiding alcohol, smoking and medicines that make you sleepy. These things make it harder for your throat to stay open when you're sleeping.
  • Getting your weight in the healthy range.
  • Sleeping on your side, not your back. Side-sleeping can help keep your throat open.

These changes are necessary for people with more serious sleep apnea, but additional treatment will probably also be needed. The most common treatment for serious sleep apnea is continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP.

CPAP consists of wearing a mask over your nose when you sleep. The mask blows air into your throat at a pressure level that's specific to you. This pressure keeps your throat open while you're sleeping.

You may stop snoring after you get treatment for sleep apnea, but that doesn't mean you don't have the apnea anymore. It also doesn't mean that you can stop using CPAP.

Most of the time, a technician will come to your home to help you set up the CPAP equipment. The technician makes adjustments based on your doctor's specifications.

Possible side effects of CPAP

There are side effects of CPAP. They can include

  • Dry, stuffy nose
  • Sore eyes
  • Headaches
  • Stomach bloating

If you have any of these problems, talk with your doctor and the technician to see what can be done to make some improvements. The mask might need to be re-fitted, or the CPAP setting might need to be changed. Adding moisture to the air can also help.

Once you start CPAP, it's important to see your doctor regularly to monitor your condition. The CPAP treatment is likely to make you feel much better than you were feeling before.

Other sleep apnea treatments

Besides CPAP, other sleep apnea treatments include

Mouthpiece. This can help people with mild sleep apnea. It adjusts your lower jaw and tongue to help keep the throat open. A dentist or orthodontist makes the mouthpiece.

Surgery. This can include removing the tonsils and adenoids. There are other possible surgical treatments.

The key thing to remember is that getting treated for sleep apnea has a double effect. It can help you sleep better, which is important in and of itself, but it can help get your blood pressure back to normal, which in turn can help reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke.

American Journal of Respiratory Critical Care Medicine, 15 July 2002; The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; The Sleep Foundation
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