It can go undiagnosed for years, even decades. That’s because the symptoms occur while a person is asleep.
Obstructive sleep apnea is a potentially serious sleep disorder that causes a person to stop breathing during the night.
“People, when they fall asleep, the muscles in the airways relax and the airway starts to close. And when they suck in their breath, they actually suck the airway closed,” said Dr. Ron Cridland, who owns and operates the Kelowna sleep clinic. “Every time you stop breathing, it’s an emergency in your body because your oxygen is dropping down, so the fight or flight system kicks in and wakes you up to breathe.”
While there are varying degrees of sleep apnea, in the most severe cases, people can stop breathing hundreds of times a night, without even knowing it.
The disorder can come with significant health implications.
“It also raises your blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar,” Dr. Cridland said. “Fifty per cent of people with untreated sleep apnea will develop high blood pressure eventually. People with diabetes will have more trouble controlling their blood sugar. People are more prone to developing faster heart rhythms and cardiac arrhythmia . . . and it increases the clotting in the blood, so people are more prone to have strokes and heart attacks.”
Obstructive sleep apnea is said to affect about 10 per cent of the adult population.
“This probably has to do with our society becoming more overweight,” said Dr. Cridland.
While sleep apnea can affect people of all ages, excessive weight can be a contributing factor. Statistics show that up to 80 per cent of people with obstructive sleep apnea are overweight.
“People who are more overweight are more prone to obstruction because their airway is more crowded with extra tissue, fat tissue,” Dr. Cridland said. “And in particular, their tongue gets thicker, so their tongue is more likely to fall back, especially when they are on their back.”
Other factors that increase a person’s risk of sleep apnea include having a narrow airway, high blood pressure and chronic nasal congestion.
The Kelowna sleep clinic sees about 1,500 patients every year, about half of them are diagnosed with sleep apnea.
On Wednesday, Global News will take a look at the treatment options available to people suffering from sleep apnea.