The easiest way to tell if you or a loved one may be struggling with apnea is by paying attention to signs. Two of the most common symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) are loud snoring and gasping for air during sleep. They suggest interrupted airflow from the upper airways (nose, throat) and low oxygen levels in the brain. Snoring happens when soft tissue from the throat, tongue, or enlarged tonsils partially blocks the airways, making the air vibrate while passing through them. Chocking and gasping for air during sleep may also correlate with airway blockage and difficulty breathing. Other common but less known symptoms of OSA are waking up with a dry mouth or dry/sore throat, morning headaches, mood swings and irritability, difficulty concentrating, excessive daytime sleepiness, and fatigue. If you observe these signs in your loved one, please incentivize them to visit a sleep doctor.
Using a Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy machine is the best way to improve sleep quality for those struggling with OSA. CPAP is the gold standard treatment for OSA, and it acts by maintaining the airflow into the airways, lungs, and brain during sleep. Work with a healthcare provider to identify a mask with a good fit and adequate size to ease you or your loved one into using the CPAP. Some signs that the mask did not fit well include having a dry or stuffed nose, dry mouth, difficulty accepting the airflow, or feeling claustrophobic.
The healthcare provider may work to find alternatives when the mask is uncomfortable, the cost is above the patient’s budget, and the patient exhibits low adherence and compliance in using the CPAP therapy. Most of all, the healthcare provider will identify if the person is eligible for an alternative treatment based on the medical history and characteristics of the OSA diagnosis. Other alternative treatments for OSA include tongue retainers, oral devices, nasal expiratory positive airway pressure (nEPAP) inserted in the nostrils when a person goes to bed) and surgery for tongue reduction or tonsils removal. In addition, a uvulectomy – a surgery that removes the uvula and excessive tissue from the soft palate may be an alternative to CPAP.
Furthermore, patients experiencing OSA due to a tongue collapse may benefit from medical devices that stimulate the hypoglossal nerve. These devices are implanted during surgery and deliver mild stimulation to the airway muscles, moving the tongue and preventing it from blocking the airway during sleep. Lastly, people with short jawbones may benefit from orthodontic appliances to promote maxillomandibular expansion and enlarge the airway.
While working with the healthcare provider, remember that not all people with OSA qualify for these alternative options. On the hand, research has shown that complementary treatments such as weight loss, exercise, avoiding alcohol consumption, and adjusting sleep positions such as slide sleep are beneficial for people dealing with OSA. Thus, make sure to bring that up with your healthcare provider. Supporting your loved one or yourself in finding the best option to treat OSA is vital to preserving health and preventing long-term consequences such as hypertension and cardiovascular disorders.
About the Author
Dr. Carleara Weiss has over 15 years of experience as an Adult-Geriatric Nurse, with a Master in Science of Health Care and a Ph.D. in Nursing, focusing on Behavioral Sleep Medicine and Circadian Rhythms. She is also Aeroflow Sleep's Sleep Science Advisor. Originally from Brazil, Dr. Weiss earned a Bachelor's in Nursing Science, Bachelor's in Education, and completed medical-surgical training and a Master's degree at the Federal Fluminense University, Niteroi, Rio de Janeiro. After eight years as Assistant Professor and Clinician assisting adults and elderly patients in hospitals, nursing homes, hospices, and private practices, Dr. Weiss moved to the United States where she earned a Ph.D. and Postdoctoral training in sleep, circadian rhythms at the State University of New at Buffalo. Dr. Weiss is a member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, Sleep Research Society and participates in professional development workshops including cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, and circadian rhythms, sleep disorders, and clinical studies.