Sleep apnea is a serious and common condition marked by pauses in breathing (or shallow breaths) while you sleep. Occurring up to 5 (or more) times per hour, breathing pauses may last 10 to 20 seconds or longer.
Sleep apnea often disrupts sleep, resulting in poor sleep quality and daytime sleepiness.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea vs. Central Sleep Apnea
In people with obstructive sleep apnea (the most common form of sleep apnea), airflow to the lungs is blocked because the airway has collapsed or is obstructed during sleep.
Less common than obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea results from miscommunication between your breathing muscles and the brain region responsible for controlling your breathing.
In many people with obstructive sleep apnea, airways become blocked due to excess body weight and a buildup of soft fat tissue in the windpipe. (In fact, it's estimated that more than 70% of sleep apnea patients are overweight.) However, other problems (such as abnormally large tonsils) can also contribute to sleep apnea.
The following people may be at an increased risk for sleep apnea:
- people who have small airways in their noses, throats, or mouths (sometimes due to the presence of allergies) or other congestion-causing conditions)
- people with a family history of sleep apnea
- African-Americans, Hispanics, and Pacific Islanders
- people who smoke
- people with high blood pressure
- people with risk factors for stroke or heart failure
Sleep apnea is also more common in men.
Symptoms of Sleep Apnea
Since many sleep apnea symptoms occur during sleep, it may be difficult to detect the disorder. One of the most common signs of sleep apnea is loud, chronic snoring, often followed by choking or gasping. As sleep apnea progresses, snoring may increase in volume and occur more frequently. However, not everyone who snores has sleep apnea.
Other sleep apnea symptoms include:
- daytime sleepiness
- morning headaches
- difficulty concentrating
- memory problems
- mood swings or symptoms of depression
- a dry throat upon awakening
The Importance of Treatment
When left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to a number of serious complications (many of which are due to sudden drops in blood oxygen levels). These complications include:
- high blood pressure
- irregular heartbeats
- increased risk for heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and heart failure
Sleep Apnea Treatment
In treating sleep apnea, doctors aim to relieve symptoms and restore regular breathing during sleep. The most effective and common treatments include the use of mouthpieces and breathing devices. In some rare instances of severe sleep apnea, a tracheostomy may be performed. This entails inserting a plastic tube through the neck into windpipe. For non-severe cases, another surgical option may be uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP), which involves removing the soft palate, uvula and tonsils.
There are also a number of lifestyle changes that can be useful in sleep apnea treatment. These include:
- avoiding alcohol and medications that make you sleepy
- maintaining a healthy weight
- sleeping on your side instead of your back
- quitting smoking
Acupuncture is one of the few types of alternative medicine shown to be useful in the management of sleep apnea. However, most of the studies testing acupuncture's effectiveness as a sleep apnea treatment have included only a small number of patients. In one study published in 2009, for instance, researchers assigned 30 people with obstructive sleep apnea to treatment with three to five acupuncture sessions per week. After 30 sessions, the patients showed significant improvements in factors such as hypoxia(the medical term for the absence of oxygen). An earlier study of 26 patients with obstructive sleep apnea found that those assigned to 10 weeks of weekly acupuncture treatment had greater relief of sleep-apnea-related respiratory problems (compared to those who received no treatment).
Due to the lack of larger studies on acupuncture and sleep apnea, it's important to consult your physician before you pursue acupuncture as a treatment for sleep apnea.
Freire AO, Sugai GC, Chrispin FS, Togeiro SM, Yamamura Y, Mello LE, Tufik S. "Treatment of moderate obstructive sleep apnea syndrome with acupuncture: a randomised, placebo-controlled pilot trial." Sleep Med. 2007 8(1):43-50.
National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute Diseases and Conditions Index, "Sleep Apnea". May 2009.
Wang XH, Yuan YD, Wang BF. "Clinical observation on effect of auricular acupoint pressing in treating sleep apnea syndrome." Zhongguo Zhong Xi Yi Jie He Za Zhi. 2003 23(10):747-9.
Xu J, Niu YX, Piao XM, Liu Z, Wu LZ, Liang RL. "Effect of acupuncture on blood oxygen saturation in patients of obstructive sleep apnea-hypopnea syndrome." Zhongguo Zhen Jiu. 2009 29(1):84-6.