Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a serious sleep disorder that causes a person to repeatedly stop breathing during sleep. It happens when the upper airway gets blocked, which is often the result of the soft tissue in the back of the throat collapsing and closing during sleep.
The Public Health Agency of Canada estimates that over 1 in 4 (26%) of Canadian adults have symptoms and risk factors that are associated with a high risk of having or developing OSA. However only 3% of Canadians have been diagnosed with the disorder.
A diagnosis is important because sleep apnea is linked to a host of health problems including diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. In addition, it can significantly impair daytime productivity and increase the risk of motor vehicle collisions.
So how do you know if you have obstructive sleep apnea? Let’s start with the obvious symptoms: The most common symptom of sleep apnea is loud snoring, especially when it is followed by a silent pause. Those suffering from the disorder may also experience gasping or choking during sleep, daytime sleepiness, irritability and morning headaches.
Aside from the symptoms, there are factors that can increase your risk of developing OSA:
- Obesity – Obese adults are 7 times more likely to develop OSA. Excess weight adds pressure on the upper airway tube, making the diameter smaller than it already is, and therefore making a blockage more likely.
- Neck Circumference – A neck circumference of more than 17 inches in men and 15 inches in women is associated with a higher risk of OSA. While obesity and neck circumference may go hand in hand, other individuals such as muscular athletes may also have a large neck circumference.
- Age – The risk of developing OSA increases with age. The tissue in the throat naturally softens as you get older, increasing the likelihood of a blockage.
- Alcohol & Smoking – Alcohol is a muscle relaxant, so consuming it close to bedtime can lead to an airway blockage, even in those who don’t normally exhibit any OSA symptoms. Smoking irritates the airway, causing it to swell. Smokers are 2.5 times more likely to have OSA.
- Gender – Men are more than twice as likely to develop OSA.
In addition to the medical treatments available to treat OSA, addressing some of the risk factors like losing weight, quitting smoking, or reducing alcohol intake can decrease your risk and help to eliminate symptoms.
All in all, if you think you’re at risk of developing OSA or if you experience any of the symptoms, talk to your doctor. They can refer you to a sleep clinic for further testing. Unfortunately, there are too many Canadians suffering from the disorder without a diagnosis and without treatment.