Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a condition in which an individual stops breathing. Apnea events (episodes of interrupted breathing) occur at night due to a physical obstruction, often in the nose, tongue, roof of mouth, or throat.
Snoring vs. Obstructive Sleep Apnea
An estimated 30% to 50% of the United States population snores. Snoring that can be heard more than two bedrooms away is called “heroic” snoring.
It’s worth noting that snoring is not sleep apnea, and sleep apnea is not snoring. Snoring, which is characterized by noisy breathing during sleep, is a social problem that can disrupt sleep for both the snorer and bed partner. Snoring may be associated with significant sleep disturbances and waking episodes. However, up to two-thirds of patients with loud snoring have significant obstructive sleep apnea.
Signs and Symptoms of Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Obstructive sleep apnea negatively affects an individual’s sleep quality and can lead to the following symptoms:
- Chronic fatigue
- Never being fully rested
- Need to take frequent daytime naps
- Excessive daytime sleepiness
- Falling asleep while driving
- Mood changes
- Low energy
- Memory loss
- Low libido
Obstructive sleep apnea not only affects quality of life, but can even cause serious health consequences, such as lung and heart problems, cognitive decline, and issues with attention, memory, and thinking skills. Left untreated, obstructive sleep apnea may lead to stroke, heart attack, high blood pressure, and even death.
Because obstructive sleep apnea is characterized by significant interruptions of breathing (airway obstructions), these pauses in breathing may lower blood oxygen levels, increase blood pressure, and cause cardiac arrhythmias (irregularities in the heart’s normal beating pattern). A patient’s spouse or partner is typically the one to notice these pauses in breathing.
What is a Sleep Study?
Patients experiencing any of the previously-mentioned symptoms should undergo a sleep study, or polysomnogram. This overnight test can be performed at home or in a sleep laboratory where the patient is monitored as they sleep. During this sleeping time, sensors keep track of numerous important processes, including heart rhythm (EKG), sleep state, blood oxygen levels, and the number and duration of apnea events. Once the study is completed, a specialist will analyze the data and use it to determine if a patient has a snoring problem or sleep apnea.
Another procedure that can be performed to determine the best treatment option for OSA is called a drug-induced sleep endoscopy (DISE), which involves looking at the airway while the patient is asleep. Examining a patient’s throat while they sleep can provide valuable information about how it collapses.
In a controlled environment, such as the operating room, a patient will be given medication that will put them in light sleep. Once they begin to snore, the physician will insert a flexible, very thin video camera through the nose and examine the airway. The physician will identify the exact location(s) of obstruction, whether it is the palate, tongue, tonsils, sides of the throat, or epiglottis. This is usually a very quick procedure with little down time and patients can return to normal activities the following day.