As many as 22 million Americans suffer from some sort of sleep apnea disorder, the most common of which is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). OSA is caused by an intermittent relaxing of the throat muscles, resulting in blocked airways during sleep. Though this type of sleep apnea is potentially very serious, as many as 80 percent of cases go undiagnosed. That’s why it’s so important to recognize the signs and symptoms and seek medical treatment if necessary.

Identifying the Disorder

Only a medical professional can definitively diagnose obstructive sleep apnea, but there are a number of telltale signs to look out for.

Loud, Chronic Snoring

Perhaps the most common symptom of OSA, loud snoring is caused by respiratory obstructions that restrict the movement of air through the airways. In the case of OSA, the airways are blocked by fatty tissue due to the relaxation of the throat muscles.

Breathing Disruptions During Sleep

The restriction of airflow causes intermittent interruptions in breathing patterns, often for several seconds at a time.

Choking or Gasping in the Middle of the Night

Intermittent breathing disruptions cause a drop in blood oxygen levels. This triggers the brain to awaken from sleep mode and resume healthy respiratory activity. As a result, sufferers will often wake up abruptly in a fit of coughing or gasping. This process can repeat five, 10, or even 30 times per hour, all night long. While the above symptoms represent the primary physical effects of obstructive sleep apnea, there are also a number of secondary effects that result from the issues above:

  • Chronic Sleepiness: OSA often contributes to excessive sleepiness during waking hours. Those frequent sleep disruptions result in a dramatic loss of sleep quality and quantity.
  • Daytime Fatigue: The persistent daytime fatigue can contribute to difficulties with concentration.
  • Changes in Mood: Mood changes like depression, anxiety, or irritability may also be present.
  • Morning Headaches: The reduced oxygen to the brain can lead to painful morning headaches.
  • High Blood Pressure: Inadequate oxygen can also contribute to blood pressure spikes and hypertension.

When to Seek Medical Assistance

Occasional symptoms may not indicate a serious problem. However, if you snore loudly, wake up choking, or exhibit any of the other aforementioned symptoms on a regular basis, visit your doctor right away. The problem may be OSA, or it may be central sleep apnea, a related condition with similar symptoms.

While OSA is caused by a relaxing of the throat muscles, central sleep apnea occurs when the brain fails to send the proper signals to the muscles responsible for breathing. If you are diagnosed with OSA, your doctor will likely refer you to a sleep clinic or to an otolaryngologist for further treatment. The treatment can involve prescribing a CPAP machine, which will help you obtain a better night’s rest. If you are diagnosed with the less common central sleep apnea, your doctor may refer you to a cardiologist or neurologist for further examination.

The important thing is to seek medical attention when the symptoms arise. Sleep apnea is treatable, but unmanaged sleep apnea can have long-term consequences.