In celebration of National Sleep Awareness Week, March 5 - 11, Loyola University Health System's Center for Sleep Disorders is encouraging people who snore loudly, hear themselves (or are told that they) gasp for air at night or wake up groggy to be evaluated for sleep apnea, a potentially deadly, but easily treatable, sleep disorder that raises the risk of heart attack and stroke.
More than 18 million people in the United States have sleep apnea.
Gregory H., 59, of Berwyn, Illinois, caught it in time by going to Loyola's Center for Sleep Disorders, where he was diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), the most common type of sleep apnea in which throat tissues collapse, blocking the airway.
Before Loyola, Greg felt fatigued all the time. His snoring woke up his wife at night. She noticed that Greg would sometimes stop breathing and then gasp for air. Neither got enough sleep.
But after a sleep study, called a polysomnogram, indicated Greg's sleep apnea, Loyola prescribed a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine. Now, Greg and his wife get a good night's sleep and both are more alert during the day.
"Sleep apnea temporarily stops a person from breathing, possibly hundreds of times each night," said Dr. Nidhi Undevia, assistant professor, department of medicine, division of pulmonary and critical care medicine, Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, Maywood, Ill.
As a result, oxygen levels may decrease and carbon dioxide levels may increase. "Both are harmful," said Undevia, board-certified sleep physician at Loyola's Center for Sleep Disorders.
"With no air coming in, your brain automatically wakes you up and you choke and gasp for air," she said. "This stresses the heart and can increase blood pressure. Once breathing returns, you might go back to sleep but only until the throat tissues again collapse. This cycle can repeat every few minutes, interrupting your sleep."
A person will be groggy and tired even if they were in bed for eight hours. "A person might fall asleep while driving, watching their children or attending a business meeting," said Undevia. At the very least, it will be hard to concentrate.
Therefore, it is much better for the individual to get tested and treated for sleep apnea as soon as possible. The sleep apnea test requires only an overnight stay to monitor the person's brain waves, oxygen levels, breathing, heart rate and leg movements. At Loyola, a board-certified sleep physician will interpret the test and determine if sleep apnea is contributing to disturbed sleep and daytime fatigue.
Undevia cautions that people who live alone may not know they have sleep apnea because outward signs of the disorder - interrupted breathing, loud snoring - occur during sleep.
Although anyone can develop sleep apnea, it is more common among people who have high blood pressure, large tonsils, nasal congestion or are overweight. It is more common in males over age 40. Women who have a neck circumference larger than 16 inches are at increased risk for OSA. In men, a neck circumference greater than 17 inches puts them at risk.