There are two basic forms of sleep apnea, obstructive (OSA) and central. OSA occurs when the tongue, tonsils, or other throat tissue block the airway. Central sleep apnea, which is rare, occurs when the brain doesn’t signal to the body to breathe as it should. There are a lot of misconceptions about sleep apnea: what it means, what the risks are, and how to treat it. Let’s sort the fact from the fiction, and uncover some of the myths about sleep apnea.
Myth One: Sleep apnea is just snoring.
This is probably the most common misconception. Sleep apnea, while often the cause of snoring, is actually a condition where a person stops breathing up to 400 times during the night for 10-30 seconds each time. The snoring is the result of the breathing resuming.
Myth Two: If you snore you have sleep apnea.
This myth goes hand in hand with the first. While many with sleep apnea snore, and many snorers have sleep apnea, they are not the same thing. 30-50% of the US population snores at one time or another. Snoring can be obnoxious, and be caused by things like colds, etc. Sleep apnea on the other hand is a serious medical condition that is potentially life threatening, not just obnoxious.
Myth Three: Sleep apnea is not dangerous.
Sleep apnea can be dangerous, especially if left untreated. At the very least the interrupted sleep impacts energy levels, which can lead to accident and injury. Risks of undiagnosed sleep apnea include heart attack, stroke, irregular heartbeat, heart disease, high blood pressure, and decreased libido on the more serious end, and irritability, drowsiness, and lost productivity on the less serious end.
Myth Four: Only the elderly get sleep apnea.
While sleep apnea or OSA are more common among those over 40, it can affect people of all ages. It is estimated that more than 12 million Americans have sleep apnea. It is common for children to have sleep apnea, with one in ten suffering from it. However, it is typically mild, and a condition they grow out of. Those most at risk are people over 40, overweight, male, African-American, Latino, and those who have a family history of sleep apnea.
Myth Five: Sleeping pills and alcohol will help you sleep.
Many people think that they can treat sleep apnea with a nightcap or by popping a few sleeping pills. While it does make a person drowsy, it will not promote healthy sleep. In fact, it can actually worsen the apnea by relaxing the muscles in the throat, making it easier for the airway to become blocked. There are many options for treating sleep apnea, including surgery to remove tonsils or shrink or stiffen floppy throat tissues, use of a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure), which is a machine that blows a stream of air into the person’s airway in order to keep it open while sleeping, weight loss, smoking cessation, a mouthpiece that adjusts the position of the jaw and tongue to keep airways open, and lying on your side. The best treatment depends on the severity, and should be determined by a physician.