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Consequences with untreated sleep apnea

Thu., July 5, 2012

DEAR DOCTOR K: I was just diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea. My doctor wants me to try CPAP. Can you tell me more about my condition and the proposed treatment?

DEAR READER: We spend about a third of our lives sleeping, so if anything unhealthy happens while we’re asleep, that’s not good news. Unfortunately, obstructive sleep apnea is unhealthy. About one in 10 adults have this condition, and many don’t know they have it.

Sleep apnea is a condition in which breathing stops or becomes shallower many times each night. The most common form is OSA, which occurs when the upper airway – including the nose, mouth and throat – is blocked during sleep.

The blockage is caused by excess tissue such as the tongue or tonsils, a large uvula and nasal congestion. It’s also caused by a relaxation of muscles in the back of the throat – muscles that keep the airway open when you’re awake. When you fall asleep, those muscles in your throat relax along with most of the other muscles in your body.

If you have OSA, the blockage prevents air from entering your lungs. As a result, oxygen levels in your blood start dropping. The drop in oxygen signals the brain to send an emergency “Breathe now!” signal. This briefly awakens you and makes you gasp for air.

These pauses in breathing can occur hundreds of times each night. Since you’re asleep, you have no symptoms. In fact, you have no idea this is happening.

Untreated, sleep apnea can have serious consequences. In addition to relentless daytime fatigue, untreated OSA increases your risk for high blood pressure (hypertension), heart failure and stroke. Your risk of dying prematurely if you have untreated OSA is more than three times higher than in people without OSA.

If your doctor has prescribed CPAP, it means that you have a moderate to severe case. CPAP is short for “continuous positive airway pressure.” With CPAP, you wear a mask that covers the nose. A small CPAP machine delivers continuous positive pressure. This pressure prevents the collapse of your airway when the muscles relax during sleep.

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