Sleep Apnea: What is It? Do You Have It?

The majority of the population has heard of sleep apnea, but many do not fully understand what it is. There are also countless people who assume their snoring is just that: snoring!

In all actuality, snoring can be a symptom of sleep apnea, which is why it is so important to talk to your medical care provider before wearing a mouthpiece or using any other type of snoring solution.

What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a sleeping disorder. It is characterized by a pause or reduction in breathing while you are sleeping. An actual “apnea” occurs when you stop breathing for at least 10 seconds or take in less than 25 percent of what is considered normal oxygen intake for the same amount of time. It is further defined by a 4 percent or more drop in blood oxygen levels.

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Click to enlarge

When an apnea occurs, poor oxygen levels in your blood and inadequate breathing disrupt your sleep. In some cases, this will cause you to wake up completely, but other times you will simply transition from a deep to a shallow sleep stage. Apneas are generally measured over a two-hour period.

The severity is determined by dividing the number of occurred apneas by the number of sleep hours. This provides an apnea index, or AI. The higher the number is of the AI, the more severe the condition is.

There is also the hypopnea worth mentioning. This is a decrease in breathing that is 69 to 29 percent of normal breath. It is not as severe as an apnea, but still disrupts breathing and affects blood oxygen levels.

Types of Sleep Apnea

Many are under the impression that sleep apnea is one universal condition that offers different severity levels. This is not true; there are three varieties.

  • Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) -This is the most common variety and the one that most often goes undiagnosed. The brain actually provides the muscles with the signal to breathe, and they respond accordingly. However, since the airway has become obstructed their efforts are unsuccessful.
  • Central Sleep Apnea (CSA) – In this case the brain does not supply the muscles with the command to breathe.
  • Mixed Sleep Apnea – An individual diagnosed with mixed sleep apnea experiences both CSA and OSA.

A Closer Look at OSA

As mentioned, obstructive sleep apnea often goes undiagnosed, especially more minor cases. It is important to become a little more familiar with this condition because if you are looking at buying a mouthpiece for snoring, you want to make sure that your snoring is not actually a symptom of this condition. Apneas are made up of four distinct components.

These include:

  • The airway becomes obstructed.
  • The brain sends the signal to the muscles to breathe, but the muscles are unsuccessful.
  • Blood oxygen level drops.
  • When the brain begins to experience a decrease in oxygen, it sends a signal to the body to wake up.

During a normal breath, air passes behind the uvula, soft palate, and tongue base, and through the throat muscles. It then flows between the vocal cords and finally reaches the lungs. If there is an obstruction at any point of this long journey, an apnea can occur. This can be resulted from a number of causes, including:

  • The palate and uvula are long or floppy. When you relax, your jaw falls back due to gravity, so these tissues can become an obstruction.
  • The back of the tongue falls to the throat and obstructs airflow. This is commonly seen in cases where the individual sleeps on their back.
  • The throat’s side walls fall together, thereby narrowing or closing the airway.
  • Turbinates in the nose become swollen and block air flow through the nasal passage.
  • The individual has a deviated septum, which narrows the air passages.

Individuals with OSA generally have an airway that is narrower than normal at the palate and base of the tongue. So, when they lie flat on their back, the palate is directly above the air passage. Once the body relaxes, so do the muscles of the pharynx. These fall backward, thereby obstructing the airway.

Individuals with OSA often do not realize they woke up throughout the night with each apnea. In many cases, the brain awakens from a stage 3, 4 or REM sleep state, and moves into a shallow sleep.

This allows the genioglossus muscle to contract, which pulls the tongue forward so the individual can breathe. Although the person does not wake up, the process does disrupt the sleep cycle. In order to be fully rested the next day, your body needs time in the deep sleep stage.

Could You Have Sleep Apnea?

It is estimated that 2 percent of women and 4 percent of men have OSA, but only 10 percent of these individuals have been diagnosed and are being treated for their disorder. Below are common symptoms associated with this condition.

  • Snoring – One of the most common symptoms of OSA is loud and bothersome snoring. This is why many cases go undiagnosed because some do not realize that their snoring could be a symptom.
  • Gasping for Air – If you pause between breaths while you are sleeping or you wake up gasping for air these are signs that you could have OSA. In some cases, affected individuals do not realize they do this until their partner tells them that they do.
  • Daytime Sleepiness – Do you constantly feel tired during the day even though you went to bed early the night before? Your body needs to spend time in a deep sleep stage to recharge. So, even if you think you are sleeping a full eight hours, if that time is spent in a light sleep stage, you are not getting fully rested.
  • Morning Headache – You did not drink last night or eat a late night sugary snack, so why are you waking up with a headache? Well, headache is a sign of OSA because the brain is robbed of oxygen through the night.
  • Poor Memory and Attention Span – If you are forgetful or have a hard time staying focused these are signs of OSA. Since your brain has to work overtime all night to tell your body to wake up when you stop breathing, it never has a chance to really rest.
  • Other – Additional signs that are sometimes associated with OSA include sexual dysfunction, depression, anxiety, irritability, confusion, frequent napping, and insomnia.

It is important to also note that the partner of an individual with OSA can experience similar symptoms, as well. This is because their sleep is disrupted all night, too.

It is also important to understand that not every person who snores has sleep apnea, and not every individual diagnosed with OSA snores. Only a doctor or sleep specialist can properly determine if you have this disorder.

Which Product Should I Choose?

questionEvery person has a unique mouth and needs, so one that is perfect for one person may not be the best option for another.

There are well over 100 products on the market, so making a decision can be quite daunting.

You will find a lot of helpful information in the comparison chart, and I have written reviews of several products.

If you would rather not spend a lot of time reading reviews, please consult my article titled “My Mouthpiece Recommendation”. I have compiled a list of three products that I believe are the best options, based on my experience.