Second to insomnia, sleep apnea is the most prevalent of all sleep disorders, and is a potentially life-threatening condition.
Sleep apnea is caused by the relaxation of muscle tone that occurs at sleep onset. It typically is characterized by some degree of snoring during sleep, and by associated irregularities in a sleeper’s breathing pattern. Usually the breathing pattern is one of rising and falling levels of snoring, or of periods of snoring followed by periods of silence. The breathing pattern also is characterized by regular movements of the body during sleep—when the body “wakes up” to allow breathing to resume.
Sleep apnea takes a terrible toll on the “architecture” of human sleep. The amounts of Delta (deep) and REM (dreaming) sleep that a sleep apneic receives are dramatically reduced. This causes sleep to be unrestorative, and a debilitating daytime tiredness results. Severe apneics find it difficult to stay awake driving on long trips, and while reading or working at a computer. Dozing in easy chairs after lunch and dinner, and while watching television, is common. Napping during the day can become a necessity, while weekends, instead of being periods of free time, often are assigned to extra sleep—to compensate for exhausting work weeks.
These are the common, outwardly visible signs of sleep apnea. Internally, however, sleep apnea places a tremendous burden on the heart, and by association, the entire cardiopulmonary system. Accordingly, all sleep apneics are in a greatly elevated risk category for stroke, heart attack, and high blood pressure.
Snoring is the sound that is made as a sleeper struggles to suck air through a partially collapsed airway, and always is an indicator of some level of difficulty breathing. The distinction that is made between “simple snoring” and apnea, however, is unambiguous. Apnea occurs when difficulty breathing causes oxygen levels in the body to dip dangerously low. The brain, always monitoring oxygen levels in the body, soon sounds a red alert: Crisis! We are running out of air! The brain releases a fresh burst of adrenalin —the body’s natural “fight or flight” response—which startles us into a partial arousal. Then the airway opens, we get desperately needed air into our lungs, and we blow off the CO2 (carbon dioxide) that has been accumulating in our system.
To experience the burden which sleep apnea places upon your cardiopulmonary system, try holding your breath for thirty seconds. You will be very uncomfortable in a very short period of time. What’s the message? We tend to take our need for oxygen for granted—but the truth is that we all are enormously dependent upon it. Now imagine being unable to breathe for thirty seconds of every minute that you are asleep. In six hours, this could tally to 360 very uncomfortable episodes of oxygen desaturation.
Are these numbers realistic? Unfortunately for patients with severe sleep apnea, they are. What is the worst part of the above described scenario? The typical sleep apnea patient, because the arousals are not conscious, has no awareness of his or her nightly struggles for air.
Next time you listen to a loved one snore, or listen to a friend complain about their partner’s snoring, demonstrate your compassion, caring, and insight. Find a sleep center in your local area at the following website address, http://www.sleepcenters.org/index.aspx and book an appointment with a physician who is a specialist in sleep disorders medicine. You may just save your friend’s life.
Friends don’t let friends—live without air.
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