Dispelling the Myths
Myth #1: OSA only affects people who are overweight or obese.
Fact: It is true that an obese person is at risk for Obstructive Sleep Apnea. He or she is likely to have an excess of fatty tissue in the throat. This tissue can collapse and block the airway when the muscles relax during sleep. But a well-conditioned athlete with a large, muscular neck may have the same problem. Weight and body mass are important factors, but OSA really is all about the airway. A thin person can have the condition if he or she has a narrow airway. A thin person also may have a structural abnormality that hinders breathing. Problem areas may include the jaw, the tonsils and adenoids, the septum, the tongue and the soft palate. In children OSA often occurs between the ages of 3 and 6 years when the tonsils and adenoids are large compared to the size of the throat.
Myth #2: OSA only affects men.
Fact: Men are more likely to have OSA, but it is common in women too. Yet women are much less likely than men to receive medical treatment for it. Risk factors for women include a neck size of >16 inches and a BMI of >25. A woman’s risk also increases during and after menopause. Warning signs are the same for men and women: loud and habitual snoring, pauses in breathing or gasping for breath during sleep. Women with the disorder also are likely to have complaints of restless sleep, daytime sleepiness, insomnia and depression.
Myth #3: OSA always causes daytime sleepiness.
Fact: Not everyone with OSA feels sleepy during the day. This involves a wide range of severity levels. A person with a mild case may stop breathing five or ten times an hour during sleep. In contrast a person with a severe case may stop breathing 30 or more times per hour. Each breathing pause ends when the body briefly wakes up to take a breath. The more times this occurs, the more fragmented and disrupted the sleep will be. Mild OSA should be taken seriously even if you don’t have daytime sleepiness. It can increase your risk of other health problems such as high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, congestive heart failure, diabetes and sudden death. It also can progress to and become more severe.
Myth #4: OSA is just loud snoring.
Fact: OSA is much more serious than simple snoring. Snoring is a sound made in the upper airway of your throat. It is a sign that your airway is partially blocked. The sound is made as the flow of air causes tissue in the back of your throat to vibrate. Loud and frequent snoring is a warning sign. During an episode, your airway can be completely blocked. Snoring stops because air is no longer able to move through your throat. After 10 seconds to a minute or longer, your body wakes with a gasping or choking sound. You resume breathing, and the cycle begins again. If you have this condition, you may have hundreds of partial or complete pauses in breathing during one night of sleep. These pauses can cause your blood pressure to soar and your oxygen levels to drop.
Myth #5: OSA doesn’t need to be treated.
Fact: Untreated OSA increases your risk for high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, heart attack, stroke, congestive heart failure, atrial fibrillation, diabetes, depression and sudden death. A recent study suggests it may even be associated with an increased risk of cancer. A very mild case may not require immediate treatment. But most people with this disorder benefit from some form of therapy. Treating OSA can lead to dramatic improvements in overall health and quality of life.