Understanding Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Thursday, October 24, 2013

Fatigue is a common complaint among patients in my practice. While there are many possible causes of fatigue, one of the less understood but more common is a disease called Obstructive Sleep Apnea Hypopnea Syndrome, or Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) for short. You may have heard of this disease, but how does it cause fatigue? Why is it a problem? Could you have Obstructive Sleep Apnea? Read on for more information.

First we should explain the disease. The word apnea means a temporary pause in breathing; hypopnea is shallow or slowed breathing. Both tend to occur more frequently during sleep. Obstructive Sleep Apnea occurs when there is a physical obstruction causing a person to stop breathing momentarily. The usual cause is excess soft tissue surrounding the airway in persons who are overweight or obese. When this soft tissue relaxes during sleep, the airway becomes blocked, and it becomes impossible to breathe. This leads to a buildup of chemicals in the brain that triggers the sleeping person to awaken and take a breath.

For a person with OSA, this cycle repeats throughout the night, causing repeated awakenings. Excessive daytime fatigue is one of the most common complaints associated with sleep apnea, and it occurs because these patients get very little regenerative sleep. Other symptoms commonly associated with sleep apnea include:

  • Snoring
  • waking up short of breath or gasping for air
  • morning headaches
  • mood changes or depression
  • uncontrolled high blood pressure.

People with Obstructive Sleep Apnea tend to have other illnesses including obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.

So, how do you find out if sleep apnea is causing you to fall asleep at your desk? After a thorough physical and blood work to rule out other likely causes of fatigue, your physician will order a sleep study, or polysomnogram. This test is usually performed at a specialized sleep center, although some companies offer home testing. With either test, your breathing, heart rate, and oxygen levels will be monitored while you sleep. The Kennedy Health System has three Sleep Centers, in Cherry Hill, Stratford and Washington Township.

If a sleep study determines you have Obstructive Sleep Apnea, your doctor may prescribe a CPAP machine. CPAP stands for Continuous Positive Airway Pressure. In essence, this machine uses a stream of air to keep the upper airway open during sleep, which allows the patient to breathe without interruption. There are other interventions which may also help improve sleep apnea; your doctor may be able to discuss these, or you may be asked to consult with a sleep specialist.

Weight loss is an essential part of improving or reversing sleep apnea. Stick to a low calorie diet that is rich in whole fruits, vegetables and grains, and exercise at a moderate intensity level for 30 to 60 minutes daily.

For more information on obstructive sleep apnea, visit www.mayoclinic.com/health/obstructive-sleep-apnea.

Dr. Jacqueline Riedel is a Family Medicine physician and a member of the Kennedy Health Alliance. She practices in West Deptford, NJ, and can be reached by calling (856)384-0210.