If you routinely get eight hours of sleep a night but wake up exhausted with no explanation, you may be one of the 25 million people in the U.S. who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder that can lead to even more severe chronic illnesses.

What is obstructive sleep apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a sleep disorder that affects more men than women (low estimates of incidence in about 24% of men and 9% of women).

OSA occurs when the throat muscles relax so much that airways become blocked. The brain feels the oxygen deprivation and wakes the sleeper. This waking is abrupt and often accompanied by a loud, gasping breath.

For those with mild obstructive sleep apnea, these incidents may only occur once or twice a night. For more severe obstructive sleep apnea, sleepers may stop breathing five to ten times an hour, every hour, for an entire night’s sleep.

Sleep apnea complications

While being tired may seem a minor irritation, OSA and chronic sleep deprivation are associated with much more serious health risks. These include:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Stroke
  • High blood pressure
  • Depression (or worsening depression if already present)
  • Migraine
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Glaucoma complications

These serious health effects may occur on top of health risks that are a direct result of sleep deprivation.

For example, drowsy drivers are just as dangerous on the road as drunk drivers and are twice as likely to cause an accident. Lack of sleep can also increase anxiety in those who suffer from panic disorders. Overall, those who sleep less than six hours a night are more likely to die prematurely, and many people with even mild obstructive sleep apnea get less than that on a regular basis.

What are symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea symptoms can affect not only the patient but also the patient’s partner. These symptoms include:

  • Daytime fatigue and excessive sleepiness
  • Snoring
  • Fogginess and difficulty concentrating
  • Noticeable cessation of breath followed by a choking intake of air
  • Dry mouth or sore throat upon awakening
  • Morning headache
  • Loss of sexual drive
  • Nighttime sweating unrelated to another condition (e.g., menopause)
  • High blood pressure

OSA symptoms may not lead directly to a diagnosis, as many of them are similar to other disorders. A patient’s partner may be the one who notices the hallmark gasping breath that is a feature of obstructive sleep apnea. To confirm the diagnosis, patients should work with a sleep clinic for a full evaluation.

What are the causes of obstructive sleep apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea has a number of causes and risk factors.

  • Obesity: Obesity may be one of the main causes for OSA. In obese patients, the upper airways can develop fat deposits and become constricted.
  • Diabetes: Those with diabetes suffer from obstructive sleep apnea at elevated rates. At the same time, those with diabetes are also more likely to be overweight, increasing their risk as well.
  • Asthma and other breathing issues: Asthma sufferers and people with chronic nasal congestion are also at an increased risk of OSA. This may be due to constriction in the airways and nasal passages.
  • Gender: Men are twice as likely to suffer from obstructive sleep apnea than women.
  • High blood pressure: OSA is both caused by high blood pressure and increases your risk of developing high blood pressure if you do not already have it.

Is obstructive sleep apnea hereditary?

Some of the risk factors for obstructive sleep apnea may be inherited. If you have a family history of obstructive sleep apnea, you are more likely to suffer from it as well. Anatomical features, like naturally narrow airways, can also be inherited. This increases your chances of developing this sleep disorder.

What are obstructive sleep apnea solutions and treatments I can try?

Some of the first treatments to try, especially for mild obstructive sleep apnea, are lifestyle changes. Losing weight, limiting alcohol consumption, and quitting smoking are three good ways to start treatment. Bonus, they require no medical intervention.

More severe obstructive sleep apnea requires more serious intervention.

CPAP machines

For many years the first