The Health Risks of Untreated Sleep Apnea


Cpap machine masks

Suffering from sleep apnea can be a drag physically and mentally, but it also takes a toll on your overall health if left untreated. Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder wherein you have one or more pauses in breathing, lasting from a few seconds to minutes, while you sleep. These apneic pauses can occur more than 30 times an hour. If diagnosed with sleep apnea, using a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine can decrease apneic pauses while sleeping by delivering pressurized air, usually through a mask, providing just enough air to prevent the airway from collapsing while sleeping.

An estimated 18 million Americans suffer from the harmful effects of sleep apnea. However, two to four percent of all Americans have an undiagnosed case of sleep apnea; that is approximately one in 50 individuals being undiagnosed. Those with an untreated case of sleep apnea face a risk of stroke that is four times as likely as those who are not afflicted and are also three times as likely to have heart disease.

Those at risk for sleep apnea include individuals with excess weight with a BMI of 25 or higher; large neck size of 17 inches for men or 16 inches for women; middle age; male gender; those with hypertension; and those with a family history of sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is almost twice as common in men as it is in women.

Symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • loud snoring
  • episodes of breathing cessation witnessed by another person
  • abrupt awakenings accompanied by shortness of breath
  • awakening with dry mouth or a sore throat
  • a morning headache
  • insomnia
  • excessive daytime sleepiness (hypersomnia)
  • attention and memory problems
  • irritability

If you are concerned that you may be suffering from sleep apnea, make an appointment with your physician detailing your symptoms and concerns. Diagnostic tests such as polysomnography or Multiple Sleep Latency Test (MSLT) may be administered. The polysomnography test records a variety of body functions during sleep — electrical activity of the brain, muscle activity, heart rate, respiratory effort, airflow, and blood oxygen levels — to assist in diagnosing sleep apnea and its severity. The Multiple Sleep Latency Test (MSLT) measures the speed one falls asleep. Most individuals take anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes to fall asleep; however, those that fall asleep in less than five minutes are likely to receive a diagnosis of sleep apnea and would benefit from a CPAP machine.

The goal of sleep apnea treatment is to restore regular breathing during sleep and relieve other symptoms like loud snoring, daytime sleepiness, and mental sluggishness. However, after the initial prescription and use of CPAP, approximately 80% of patients who say they use their CPAP don?t use it enough to see the benefit of this treatment or to keep them safe from harm. Side effects of the CPAP machine that may cause an individual to lapse in its usage have been reported as a dry or stuffy nose, irritated skin on the face, dry mouth, headaches, and discomfort while wearing the CPAP mask. Studies have shown, though, that about half of all people stop using their CPAP machines in one to three weeks after initial prescription. For the CPAP machine to be effective, patients should use their CPAP at least 70% of the time over a 30-day period for at least four hours every night. Talk to your physician if side effects severely interfere with nightly CPAP usage. With regular CPAP machine use, sleep apnea can be treated and lessened over time allowing for more restful, sleep-filled nights.

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