Is sleep apnea a nuisance or something more serious?

Another sleepless night, another miserable day.

  • Your spouse complains about your snoring, but the real problem is that you gasp for air in your sleep several times throughout the night.
  • You wonder if it’s nothing, or is it worth looking into?
  • The answer: Yes, you should look into it. That’s because sleep apnea is more than just a nuisance — it’s a warning sign.
  • “Long-term, undiagnosed sleep apnea can make a lot of other medical issues worse,” says Jennifer May, PhD, RPSGT, Manager of Clinical Neurophysiology at Sentara Sleep Center.

Despite the risks, people still avoid getting diagnosed and treated. In fact, about 10 million Americans have sleep apnea, but don’t know it, estimates the American Association for Respiratory Care.

Reaching A Diagnosis

If you, your spouse or your doctor decide you should be tested for sleep apnea, one of the first steps may include a sleep study.

  • “Our brainwave patterns change as we fall asleep,” explains May. “During a sleep study we can see distinct changes for different sleep stages.”
  • “For instance, we have rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Our bodies are somewhat paralyzed during this stage. Our muscles relax so we don’t move,” May adds. “Sleep apnea can be worse in different stages, like REM sleep, because of the relaxed muscles.”  

During the pause in breathing, your body’s oxygen levels dip slightly—although they could drop more significantly if the sleep apnea is severe.

  • One of the tell-tale signs of sleep apnea is snoring.
  • “With snoring, you might just have issues with your sinuses,” Dr. May says. “But snoring is also an indication of a blocked airway.”

Treatment Has Come A Long Way

People put off sleep apnea diagnosis and treatment for a number of reasons. But, getting treated comes with one major lifestyle benefit: “It gives you more energy.”

  • Treatment for mild sleep apnea can include measures as simple as sleeping with a pillow that forces you into positions that increase airflow or using an oral appliance to open your airway.

CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure)

  • A CPAP is considered the gold standard of sleep apnea treatment. It connects a mask to a tube that uses positive pressure to force the airways to stay open. During your sleep study, your sleep technologist will determine the right pressure for your CPAP.
  • CPAP technology has come a long way since the days of having to store a clunky machine the size of an industrial vacuum cleaner next to your bed. Today, these machines are small enough to fit on your nightstand. And — perhaps most importantly — they’re quieter.


For severe cases, surgery may be the best option. Surgical procedures range from having your tonsils removed to moving your lower jaw forward.

  • A new surgical treatment implants a nerve stimulator that stimulates your tongue muscles during sleep to force your tongue forward enough to keep your airway open and reduce sleep apnea.
  • Because your sleep isn’t interrupted during the night, you wake up more rested.
  • Your spouse will appreciate it, too, especially if he or she is not getting much sleep because of your snoring.

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