Sleep apnea refers to breathing pauses because your airways are blocked or partly blocked while you sleep. These breathing pauses, called apneas or apnea events, can last 10 seconds or longer. People with sleep apnea can stop breathing hundreds of times each night, and this results in disrupted sleep and low levels of oxygen.

People with sleep apnea often do not feel rested in the morning which can lead to daytime sleepiness and trouble thinking clearly. Untreated sleep apnea can increase risk of car or work accidents, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and early death.

1 in every 5 adults has at least mild obstructive sleep apnea.
Up to 4 in 100 children likely to have obstructive sleep apnea.
1 in 4 Canadian adults are high risk of having or developing OSA, estimates suggest over 80% of cases go undiagnosed.

Main Types of Sleep Apnea 

  • Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) occurs when tissues at the back of your throat collapse, and your airways are blocked or partly blocked. OSA is the most common form of sleep apnea. 
  • Central sleep apnea happens when the brain has trouble controlling your breathing and fails to signal the muscles needed to breathe. 
  • Mixed or complex sleep apnea is when you have both central and obstructive sleep apnea. Each sleep apnea episode usually begins with no breathing effort (Central Sleep Apnea). The breathing effort starts, but the airway is blocked (Obstructive Sleep Apnea). 

Signs/Symptoms

The two main symptoms are: 

  1. Excessive daytime sleepiness (not feeling rested after a night’s sleep) 
  2. Loud snoring with pauses in breathing 

Other symptoms or conditions include: 

  • Waking with a dry mouth
  • Morning headache 
  • Irritability
  • Gasping or choking during sleep 
  • Lack of concentration (when awake)
  • High blood pressure 
  • Diabetes 
  • Heart, liver and kidney disease 
  • Depression 

Untreated sleep apnea risks: 

  • You may develop high blood pressure or Type II Diabetes 
  • Increase risk of heart attack or stroke
  • Poor memory and concentration
  • Greater risk of causing a motor vehicle accident 
  • May develop an irregular heartbeat.

Diagnosis

It is essential to get a proper diagnosis if you feel like you may have sleep apnea. Speak with your family doctor about your concerns and ask for a diagnosis. Your doctor will examine you, ask about your past health, and perform tests to find out what’s causing your sleep apnea.

Polysomnography (PSG)/Level 1 Testing is a monitored method of diagnosing sleep apnea, and other sleep problems. It is an overnight test in a sleep lab where your sleep is monitored to gather data about your sleep stages and cycles, oxygen levels, heart rate, body movements and breathing patterns. A Certified Sleep Physician or sleep doctor will explain the results and suggest treatment if needed. 

Home Sleep Apnea Test (HSAT)/Level 3 Testing is performed at your home to assess data about your oxygen levels and breathing patterns. Portable monitors will record information about your breathing while you are sleeping. When the test is completed, return the machine to the clinic to be reviewed. A sleep doctor will interpret the results and determine if a follow-up for treatment is required.

Treatment

Sleep apnea is often treated with a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine that prevents your airways from closing during sleep. Oral or nasal breathing devices may assist with sleep apnea.

Managing your sleep apnea is the first step to maintaining your health and regaining your quality of life. Consider help from your family, friends, and healthcare professionals such as your sleep doctor, family doctor, sleep apnea health professional/educator, and pharmacist. It is important to keep them informed about any changes or needs you might have.

Resources

My Health Alberta – Sleep Apnea
Alberta Health Services – Sleep Apnea

Do you want to help us improve patient education materials designed for individuals with obstructive sleep apnea? Participants with sleep apnea are needed for a brief interview about their experiences, challenges regarding patient education materials designed for patients with obstructive sleep apnea. To participate click here for further details.

Nina Snyder, Alberta Lung Chief Operations Officer, wearing a sleep apnea mask.

My with and without photos are an important reminder to me that we don’t always “look” like we have breathing issues, and sometimes we don’t realize that we do until our health suffers. Since my diagnosis of OSA and acquiring a sleep apnea machine, my sleep and health have improved, my blood pressure has dropped. I feel more balanced, and energetic and overall see positive improvements.

Nina Snyder, Alberta Lung’s Chief Operations Officer