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Obstructive Sleep Apnea: It's More Than Just a Snore

by Tiffany Barth

May 2023

Map of North Dakota showing Mercer County When public health surveyors asked about sleep, 40% of North Dakotans said they snore and 20% said they'd been told they actually stop breathing during sleep. Locally, one third of people in Mercer County reported on another sleep fact: they get less than seven hours of sleep at night, although sleep doctors say eight is best.

These facts about how North Dakotans are sleeping can be related to a common sleep problem called obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). What is OSA? Obstructive sleep apnea is a common type of abnormal sleep pattern that causes repeated pauses in breathing while asleep, referred to as "apnea." While asleep and experiencing OSA, the muscles of the airway relax and collapse which closes off the connection between the throat and the lungs. This causes the airway obstruction.

OSA can cause daytime symptoms like morning headaches, difficulty focusing or "brain fog," and sleepiness. Sometimes the daytime sleepiness can be so severe that people can fall asleep while they are driving. Additional signs include weight gain and persistently feeling down.

While anyone can experience OSA, the person who is most likely to experience OSA is an overweight older man who is usually not aware that they snore and stop breathing. However, these signs are commonly observed by household members or friends who notice a grandfather or father fall asleep in the chair, snores and snorts on and off, but wakes up when the TV channel is changed up to say "Hey, I was watching that!"

These observations by loved ones can help doctors better understand if snoring and apnea are caused by OSA, which is officially diagnosed by a special sleep test called a polysomnograph. While asleep, the test monitors the brain, heart, lungs, oxygen levels, and breathing patterns. Results determine if OSA is present and if it is, what treatment is best.

CPAP mask One common treatment for OSA is a continuous positive air pressure machine (CPAP). A CPAP works like a splint to prevent the airway from collapsing during sleep to provide support to the airway with improvement in sleep quality and a decrease in daytime sleepiness.

A good reason to not ignore snoring and apnea is because the effects OSA can harm the heart. When breathing stops, oxygen levels also decrease. Over time, repeated low levels of oxygen can cause heart problems like high blood pressure. If persistently elevated blood pressures are left untreated, it can damage the heart muscle and cause it to lose its ability to efficiently pump blood through the body, a condition known as heart failure.

In addition to daytime sleepiness and heart problems, unrecognized OSA can be dangerous for people who need surgical procedures. Why does this happen? When undergoing a surgical procedure, people with OSA can have different requirements for oxygen, are more sensitive to the sedating medications, and take longer to wake up after surgery. Researchers have found OSA is also linked to an increased likelihood of certain complications – like blood clots and heart attacks – for up to 30 days after surgery.

Although snoring is a common occurrence in households, apnea may not be. It is important to check with healthcare providers to determine if OSA is causing snoring, snorting, and health problems. Remember, obstructive sleep apnea is more than just a snore.

This article also appeared in the May 31, 2023 issue of the Hazen Star.

About the Author

Tiffany Barth is a third-year medical student at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences. As a participant in patient care experiences offered in the communities of Beulah and Hazen, Barth chose to participate in the Targeted Rural Health Education program, or TRHE. The program focuses on teaching student doctors the importance of rural newspapers as a way to share health information with rural community members. The information is not for diagnosis or treatment and should not be used in place of previous medical advice provided by a licensed practitioner.