Do you have sleep apnea?

This potentially dangerous sleep disorder increases risk for high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke.

Do you snore? Wake up feeling tired after a full night’s sleep? Have you been told that you seem to stop breathing for brief intervals throughout the night?

If so, you may be among millions of North Americans who have a common, yet potentially dangerous sleep disorder called sleep apnea.

“Apnea” – which is Greek for “without breath” – refers to episodes where a person pauses in breathing during sleep. Typically, an episode lasts long enough that one or more breaths are missed, and can occur dozens or even hundreds of times throughout the night.

The sleep disorder is considered a serious medical condition. About half of people with sleep apnea develop high blood pressure which increases the risk of heart failure and stroke. And a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (November 2005) found that obstructive sleep apnea greatly increases the risk of stroke even if a person doesn’t have high blood pressure.

However, effectively treating sleep apnea can lower blood pressure and risks of cardiovascular disease.

Sleep apnea can also lead to severe daytime fatigue, memory problems, mood swings or feelings of depression, a need to urinate frequently at night (nocturia), and impotence.

People with sleep apnea may be more likely to experience complications following major surgery because they’re prone to breathing problems, especially when sedated and lying on their backs. If you have sleep apnea, be sure to tell your doctor before undergoing surgery. The situation is even more risky for people with undiagnosed sleep apnea.

People with sleep apnea are rarely aware of having problems breathing, experts say. Typically it is discovered by others witnessing apnea episodes or because of its effects on the body.

“Left untreated, sleep apnea can cause high blood pressure and other heart disease, memory problems, mood swings, impotency and headaches,” said Andrew Wexler, MD and President of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. “The condition can also lead to serious work injuries and car accidents because sufferers are drowsy and fall asleep.”

Sleep apnea occurs in two distinct forms: central and obstructive. Obstructive sleep apnea, the more common type, occurs when soft tissues of the throat relax and cause a physical block to airflow. In central sleep apnea, the brain doesn’t send the proper signals to the muscles that control breathing. Complex sleep apnea is a combination of both types.

Symptoms of obstructive and central sleep apneas overlap, sometimes making a determination between the two difficult. According to the Mayo Clinic, the most common symptoms of both obstructive and central sleep apneas include:

• Excessive daytime sleepiness
• Loud snoring
• Observed episodes of breathing cessation during sleep
• Abrupt awakenings accompanied by shortness of breath
• Awakening with a dry mouth or sore throat
• Morning headache
• Difficulty staying asleep or insomnia

Disruptive snoring may be a more prominent characteristic of obstructive sleep apnea, while awakening with shortness of breath may be more common with central sleep apnea.