If you regularly spend the night tossing, turning, and snoring and frequently wake up exhausted, irritable, and unable to concentrate, you might have a serious medical condition called sleep apnea. Most people aren’t even aware they have it because the telltale signs occur while they’re asleep. Read on to learn what sleep apnea is, what causes it, and how it can be treated so you can put all your worries to rest.

The world currently has a real sleep problem. We’re not getting enough sleep, and the sleep we are getting isn’t very good. As we’re learning, low-quality sleep can cause a variety of serious health problems, so making sure you’re sleeping enough is extremely important. If you’re limiting caffeine and alcohol before bed, turning your screens off early, and sleeping in a cool, comfortable room, yet you still frequently wake up not just on the wrong side of the bed but feeling like you got hit by a bus, you might have a condition known as sleep apnea. Whether you know the term well or you’re just now reading it for the first time, we’ve got the information you need to educate yourself and get the right treatment. 

Some sleep apnea statistics

Sleep apnea is more common than most people think because it so often goes undiagnosed. Most patients don’t even know they have it until a spouse, partner, or roommate hears them stop breathing while sleeping. According to Dr. Nancy Foldvary-Schaefer, DO, MS, who directs Cleveland Clinic’s Sleep Disorders Center, at least 9 percent of women and 24 percent of men in the United States are affected by some form of sleep apnea, and those percentages are even higher for people who have one or more risk factors, which we discuss below. Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer also says that up to 80 percent of cases are undiagnosed, making sleep apnea a silent—and potentially deadly—epidemic. According to another estimate by Paul Peppard and collaborators published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 2013, up to 26 percent of adults may have at least mild sleep apnea. With statistics like that, you or someone you know is probably affected.

What is sleep apnea, exactly?

In a nutshell, sleep apnea occurs when there is a disordered breathing event during sleep, meaning that for one reason or another, you stop breathing normally, usually due to an obstruction that can be caused by a variety of factors. Two categories of risk factors increase the likelihood of sleep apnea. The first is physical risk factors, which include obesity, neck circumference, and having a narrowed airway (due to enlarged tonsils, for example). Physical risk factors also include sex (men are two to three times likelier to develop sleep apnea) and age (it occurs more frequently in older adults). The second category is behavioral factors, such as alcohol use, certain medications, smoking, and sleep position. These risk factors aside, there is a common myth that sleep apnea only affects overweight, older men—which could not be further from the truth. Anyone, at any age, can develop sleep apnea.

Types of sleep apnea

Once people learn how prevalent sleep apnea really is, many more are surprised to find out there are three distinct types of sleep apnea, even though the symptoms for each type are often the same. The most common type, according to the Mayo Clinic, is obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles in the neck and throat relax during sleep and block your windpipe. This can cause loud snoring, gasping for air, and some people even stop breathing altogether for short periods of time. As a result, sleep apnea sufferers often report dry mouth in the morning, headaches, insomnia, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and irritability. These short-term effects pale in comparison to the long-term ones, which can include heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and more. Thankfully, a variety of treatments are available, which we cover below.

The second type of sleep apnea is called central sleep apnea (CSA). Rather than being caused by physical or behavioral factors, CSA is caused by the central nervous system. Your airway doesn’t become blocked like with OSA—instead, your brain doesn’t send your body the right signals to breathe normally while you sleep. Because the airway isn’t blocked, CSA sufferers usually don’t snore. This is one way doctors distinguish between CSA and OSA. 

The third type of sleep apnea is mixed sleep apnea, which is when patients have a combination of both obstructive and central sleep apnea. It is usually discovered when CPAP fails as a treatment for OSA. Mixed sleep apnea requires additional treatment to address both the mechanical and brain signal issues at play.

How severe is my sleep apnea?

According to the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, the apnea hypopnea (hy-POP-nee-uh) index (AHI) is a tool your doctor uses to measure the number of apneas (full blockages) and hypopneas (partial blockages) that occur per hour of sleep. The higher the number, the more severe the condition. Here’s the scale doctors use to determine how severe sleep apnea is:

        • AHI under 5: no sleep apnea/normal

        • AHI between 5 and 15: mild sleep apnea

        • AHI between 15 and 30: moderate sleep apnea

        • AHI over 30: severe sleep apnea

Severe sleep apnea sufferers may not be getting any quality sleep at all, which can take a serious toll on their health.

You’ve been diagnosed. Now what?

Talk to your doctor if you think you have sleep apnea. If a diagnosis is confirmed, there are many treatment options available, ranging from losing weight and continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) to more invasive surgical options. CPAP is the most common and effective non-invasive treatment for obstructive sleep apnea and, when paired with additional treatments, can be used for central sleep apnea as well. Many patients report having their most restful sleep in years once they get used to CPAP therapy, which involves wearing a breathing mask while sleeping that pushes compressed air into the lungs to keep the airway open. With the proper adjustments, more than two thirds of patients say that CPAP has helped them get their lives back.

It’s no secret that complying with CPAP therapy can be a challenge. Breathing masks can feel bulky and unnatural, and patients may find it difficult to get used to wearing them. Masks can cause irritation, redness, and strap marks on your face, where your skin is most sensitive. Small leaks can blow air into your eyes and dry them out. Even still, the benefits of CPAP therapy far outweigh the discomfort, and thankfully, there’s an effective tool to reduce your discomfort to a minimum—the Facembrace. This innovative comfort accessory is made from a super-thin fabric that acts like a second skin to protect your face and eyes from the three main types of breathing mask discomfort. No more red marks, no more irritation, and no more dry eyes. Finally, CPAP users can experience better comfort, making it easier to stick to their treatment and get the quality sleep they need. To learn more about the Facembrace, visit the product page here.