Sleep apnea, when a sleeping person briefly stops breathing during the night, is a hidden condition. The primary symptom happens while patients are sleeping; that means it can do its damage surreptitiously, right under a sufferer’s nose, and not be recognized for years, if ever. The condition isn’t directly detectable at an ordinary check-up. There’s no blood test for it. In fact, more than three-quarters of the estimated 40 million people in the United States with sleep apnea are undiagnosed. The only way to diagnose sleep apnea is, first, to be looking for it specifically, and then usually to do a sleep study, in which the person suspected of having apnea is watched an monitored during sleep.
Meanwhile, the effects of the disease are difficult to miss, even if they aren’t recognized as symptoms. Because people wake up when apnea causes them to stop breathing, their sleep is disjointed, fragmented, and not restful. That means they go through the day tired and can be unfocused. The blockage that stops breathing in apnea can sometimes be apparent as loud, heavy snoring that may wake others up. Getting a proper diagnosis is important, because left untreated, apnea can lead to erectile dysfunction, complications with surgery, and liver problems.
Sleep apnea also leads to hypertension and raises the risk of stroke. That’s because the fluctuations in oxygen level caused by sleep apnea—down when the patient stops breathing, then back to normal when breathing resumes, every few minutes all night long—induces the heart to pump harder to compensate, meaning blood pressure rises and the risk of stroke goes up. In fact, the oxygen issues strain the entire cardiovascular system, leading to a higher risk of heart disease. Heart disease can exacerbate the dangers of apnea, because the incidents of hypoxia can trigger fatal cardiac events.
Sleep apnea patients are generally advised to lose weight, if they can, since being overweight or obese is a risk factor for apnea. Quitting smoking also helps, as does avoiding alcohol and sedatives that may cause the throat muscles to relax excessively. Beyond that, there isn’t much in the way of medication, but a continuous positive airway pressure or CPAP, machine can be used to pump in air to keep your breathing passages open. CPAP can be cumbersome, however; a recently developed implantable device is being tested as a replacement.