Sleep apnea is a breathing disorder characterized by brief but repetitive interruptions of breathing during sleep. It may be an underlying cause of heart disease. Researchers believe that the lack of oxygen that occurs during sleep apnea can cause an increase in blood pressure, which can stress your heart and increase the amount of sugar in your blood. Sleep apnea can worsen existing cardiovascular disease. Sleep apnea occurs in all age groups and both genders. Sleep apnea often goes unrecognized for many years due to lack of specific symptoms.

There are three types of sleep apnea:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea (occurs when the muscles of the throat relax too much)
  • Central sleep apnea (occurs when your brain doesn't send proper signals to the muscles that control breathing)
  • Complex sleep apnea (a combination of obstructive and central sleep apnea)

Research shows that treatment of sleep apnea improves heart function and decreases the risk of coronary events and stroke. More research is needed to determine the exact relationship between sleep apnea and heart disease. Some studies show that patients with sleep apnea are at increased risk for ventricular arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms) and nocturnal sudden death (dying in your sleep).

Additional studies show that with obstructive sleep apnea, the right side of your heart may suffer damage as it pumps harder to help the lungs overcome the blockage of your airway.

Symptoms of sleep apnea

There are no specific symptoms for sleep apnea, which can make diagnosis difficult. Sometimes symptoms of snoring and daytime sleepiness can help identify individuals at risk for sleep apnea.

Why choose Ohio State for sleep apnea treatment?

Ohio State's Wexner Medical Center has pioneered an outpatient treatment approach for sleep apnea. This approach involves sleep specialists and cardiologists seeing patients together in an integrated program that is improving patients' quality of life. It also promotes research to better understand links between sleep apnea and heart disease.

The sleep medicine and cardiology researchers at Ohio State's Wexner Medical Center were the first to evaluate the impact of common sleep disorders on heart failure patients.

How Ohio State diagnoses sleep apnea

Tests for evaluating a person for sleep apnea include:

  • Polysomnography – a test that records electrical activity of the brain, eye movement, muscle activity, heart rate, respiratory effort, air flow and blood oxygen levels during sleep
  • Portable Sleep Studies – these studies are abbreviated polysomnography that can be done at home or during the hospital stay

Your sleep doctor can determine which test is most appropriate based on your particular case.

How Ohio State treats sleep apnea

Seeking early treatment for sleep apnea can reduce your risk for heart disease. Specific treatment for heart disease and sleep apnea will be determined by your physician based on:

  • Your age, overall health and medical history
  • Extent of the disease
  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures or therapies
  • Expectations for the course of the disease

Therapy for sleep apnea is specifically designed based on your individual needs, and may include the following:

  • Positive airway pressure therapy – There are now several pressure modalities that can treat different types of sleep apnea. They include continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), which is a type of positive pressure therapy that is administered through a nasal mask or nasal pillow (thick canula) and can hold the airway open and prevent airway closure and apnea. Continuous positive airway pressure is the most effective therapy for obstructive sleep apnea. Continuous positive airway pressure treatment can also improve the cardiac function in patients with heart failure.
  • Dental appliances that reposition the lower jaw and the tongue are an option for patients with mild cases of sleep apnea
  • Surgery is indicated in cases that positive airway pressure devices or dental appliances are not effective
    • Removal of adenoids and tonsils, nasal polyps, or other growths or tissue in the airway
    • Correction of structural deformities – such as reconstruction of the lower jaw
    • Uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP) – a procedure that removes excess tissue in the throat to make the airway wider
    • Surgical reconstruction for deformities of the lower jaw
    • Procedures to treat obesity, such as bariatric surgery

Always consult your sleep medicine physician for the most appropriate treatment plan based on your medical condition.

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