Does my partner have sleep apnea?

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If your partner snores, you may think the biggest danger involved is just a bad night’s sleep for the both of you.

However, loud, excessive snoring, coupled with other symptoms like obesity and hypertension, could be indicative of a more serious condition -- sleep apnea, which affects one in five adults in the U.S. Dangers associated with sleep apnea range from extreme fatigue to an increased risk of sudden cardiac death, which kills more than 450,000 Americans a year.

If you are concerned your partner may have sleep apnea, Eugene Chio, MD, an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist at Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, has several tips you can use to keep your partner safe, and help both of you sleep better at night.

What is sleep apnea and why is it so dangerous?

Sleep apnea is a condition that causes your breathing to stop during sleep, sometimes up to several hundred times a night. If your partner has sleep apnea, then their blood oxygen levels may drop abruptly during the night, which usually results in their brain waking them up to restore their breathing. 

If treated, sleep apnea can be benign, but if left undiagnosed, Dr. Chio explains, it can be life threatening.

“Most people assume the sleep apnea just makes someone sleepy during the day,” says Dr. Chio. “However, there are other important, significant side effects such as increased risk of vehicular accidents, and a more than two-fold risk of cardiovascular morbidity and mortality, like heart attacks, heart failure and strokes.”

In fact, the sleep disorder is found in 30 percent of people with cardiovascular disease, in more than a quarter of people with high blood pressure and in up to half of people with heart failure, atrial fibrillation (a heart rhythm abnormality) and stroke.

Who is at risk of sleep apnea?

Men are twice as likely as women to develop sleep apnea, but the risk factor increases for women after menopause. According to Dr. Chio, any of these risk factors can contribute to sleep apnea:
  • Obesity; thin patients can also develop it, but are at a lower risk
  • A thick neck circumference (>16 inch neck circumference) and small chin/jaw
  • Large tonsils or adenoids 
  • Old age (> 50 years old) 
  • Family history 
  • Alcohol, tobacco and/or drug use
  • Nasal congestion

What are warning signs of sleep apnea?

Patients with sleep apnea may suffer from excessive daytime sleepiness, morning headaches, lack of energy, cognitive impairment, hypertension, cardiac disease, snoring and witnessed apneas (you witness your partner stop breathing). 

“Excessively loud snoring or pauses in breathing are usually concerning features,” Dr. Chio says. 

Typically, the patient is unaware they even have a problem, according to Dr. Chio, and it's the bed partner who recognizes the loud snoring and pauses in breathing. That is why it is crucial to pay attention to your partner’s symptoms. If any signs of sleep apnea are present, encourage your partner to see a doctor right away. Which leads to the question…

How is sleep apnea diagnosed?

A doctor will make a determination about your partner sleep apnea by conducting an in-lab or at-home sleep study that monitors breathing and other body functions during sleep.

The in-lab study is an overnight study where you’re hooked up to several monitors measuring heart rate, blood oxygen concentration, brain wave patterns, brain wave patterns and respiratory effort. You show up just prior to your usual bedtime and try to get a normal night’s sleep. In the morning, you’re unhooked from the monitors and go home or go to work.
 

Is there a way to treat sleep apnea?

Your doctor will likely start conservative treatment for sleep apnea by providing a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) mask, which provides a positive air pressure into the airway that helps keep the soft tissues from collapsing. 

Similar to CPAP, there are airway pressure devices that are placed over the nose instead of the mouth. In addition, treatment options include dental appliances that may help with sleep apnea by keeping a patient’s throat open during sleep. 

However, if your partner doesn’t like the idea of wearing a device while sleeping, he or she could consider surgery. 

“Surgery is often the most aggressive option but may be a great option for some,” Dr. Chio explains. “One of the newer surgical options involves implanting a pacemaker to stimulate the tongue muscle to move it forward and open your throat.”

Is there a way to prevent sleep apnea?

The best way to prevent sleep apnea is to maintain an ideal body mass index (BMI). While 35 to 40 percent of sleep apnea diagnoses can be linked back to genetics, obesity is the number one cause of the disorder. Dr. Chio says that a healthy diet and exercise regimen can ward off sleep apnea, and even be a cure for those patients who suffer from it.

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