Sleep apnea affects an estimated 22 million Americans and nearly 1 billion people worldwide, and 80% of moderate and severe obstructive sleep apnea cases are thought to go undiagnosed. It’s no wonder why—sleep apnea presents itself only when we’re asleep, and episodes of gasping or choking which indicate sleep apnea are nearly always forgotten in the grogginess of sleep. 

To pin down more information on this elusive sleep disorder, we sat down with Reverie®️  Sleep Advisory Board member Dr. Thanuja Hamilton, who specializes in sleep apnea cases, to get the answers to your most pressing sleep apnea questions—from diagnosing to possible treatments.

What is sleep apnea?

The most common form of sleep apnea is called “obstructive sleep apnea” (or OSA). Like it sounds, this form is caused by temporary obstruction to your breathing (called an apnea) due to the closing of the airways in your throat.

You have soft tissue in your throat that, like the rest of your body, relaxes when you’re asleep. When this tissue gathers close enough together, it will vibrate as air passes through your throat, which is what we hear as snoring. OSA occurs when the tissue comes together close enough to temporarily stop any air from passing through, causing the sleeper to gasp or choke.

“Your airways collapse to a point where your oxygen levels dip, which in turn causes brain arousal,” Dr. Hamilton tells us. Along with this brain arousal comes an interruption to your sleep and a rise in cortisol, your body’s main stress hormone. 

This interruption to sleep is then what causes the grogginess and fatigue that is one of the most common signs of sleep apnea.

Who is most at risk?

Dr. Hamilton explains that sleep apnea is primarily “an anatomical issue”—it all comes down to your body. Risk factors that Dr. Hamilton listed include:

  • Weight—sleep apnea is more prevalent in those who are obese, meaning that they have a BMI of 30 or above. Extra weight around the neck in obese individuals can cause the airways to collapse more easily.
  • Age—sleep apnea appears more often in those over the age of 50.
  • Facial structure—having a recessed lower jaw (when your lower jaw is set back further than your upper jaw) can lead to your airways closing during sleep.

What are the signs you should look out for?

Among the typical signs, Dr. Hamilton mentioned:

  • Snoring
  • Waking up suddenly from sleep for no identifiable reason
  • Feeling drowsy during the day even after a full night of sleep
  • A sudden spike in blood pressure

How do you get a professional diagnosis if you believe you may have sleep apnea?

Dr. Hamilton recommends first talking to your doctor. If the symptoms you describe sound to your doctor like sleep apnea, they will then refer you to a sleep specialist (a medical professional who has received additional training in the field of sleep medicine).

After speaking with you, a sleep specialist may want to evaluate exactly why you’re having these symptoms by conducting a sleep study. In a sleep study, technicians will monitor the light and deep stages of sleep you go through, your oxygen levels, whether you wake at all throughout the night, and what physical factors, if any, may be interrupting your sleep.

To determine the presence of sleep apnea, “they’re looking for that interruption in sleep caused by the apnea,” Dr. Hamilton says, which is indicated by signs like a sudden drop in your oxygen levels.What are the different treatment options out there for people suffering from sleep apnea?

Once someone is diagnosed with sleep apnea, there are several different treatment options, but the common goal of all of them is “somehow opening up the airway,'' Dr. Hamilton tells us. These different solutions include:

  • Changing sleeping position—Side sleeping is recommended, as it’s been proven to be more conducive to keeping your airways open.
  • Dental devices—Helpful apparatus like a mandibular advancement device can help those whose lower jaws are set back, by raising them to the right level and decreasing the chance of the airway closing.
  • CPAP machine—CPAP stands for “continuous positive airway pressure”. A CPAP machine is an air pump connected by a tube and face mask to the sleeper, helping to maintain constant airflow and keep the airway firm and open.
  • Surgery—For those looking for an alternative to the CPAP machine, different surgeries may be undertaken in the nose, jaw, or throat areas which all help to make breathing while asleep an easier process for your body.

Can an adjustable bed help?

Dr. Hamilton says that an adjustable bed can be helpful for those with mild cases of sleep apnea—“especially those who are experiencing all the symptoms of sleep apnea but are not officially diagnosed, for whatever reason.”

An adjustable bed is a great tool for decreasing snoring and improving mild cases of sleep apnea thanks to the head-up feature. By raising the head of your bed, you position yourself in a way that your upper body is not being weighed down by gravity as much as it is when you’re laying flat. This decrease in pressure on your throat lowers the chances of the soft tissue of your throat coming together and vibrating or temporarily closing up. In many Reverie adjustable beds, we include this position on our remotes as a convenient preset, called Anti-Snore.

As always, if you’ve been diagnosed with sleep apnea or have similar symptoms, and you’re considering whether an adjustable bed might be the right option for you, talking about it with your doctor is always the safest bet. The most important thing is making sure you get the specific help you need so you can get the great night’s sleep you deserve!