Amit Khanna, MD

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When being sleepy is a problem

You’re exhausted, even though you turned in early. Your partner complains about your disruptive snoring. Should you call your doctor? If the problem interferes with a good night’s sleep more often than not, you should talk to you doctor, said Amit Khanna, MD, a sleep medicine specialist with Northeast Medical Group and medical director at Lawrence + Memorial Sleep Center may have a sleep-related disorder.

What is sleep apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common sleep-related disorder. While you sleep, your throat muscles relax and narrow, blocking your airways so you aren’t taking in enough oxygen. This causes short periods where you are not breathing followed by gasps for air. A classic symptom is snoring. These repeated interruptions prevent the brain from entering the deepest, most restful sleep. People often wake up feeling very tired, even though the clock says they had a full night’s rest.

“Untreated sleep apnea can increase your risk of serious complications, including hypertension, coronary artery disease, cardiac arrhythmias, type 2 diabetes, heart failure and stroke,” Dr. Khanna said. 

Obstructive sleep apnea can contribute to memory and cognitive deficits, factors that may lead to errors in judgment. Motor vehicle accidents due to drowsy driving, for example, are two to three times more common among people with OSA. 

What are the symptoms of sleep apnea? 

“The most common symptom is excessive daytime sleepiness where patients have difficulty maintaining wakefulness or alertness at appropriate times during the day," Dr. Khanna said. 

He notes that it is important to distinguish fatigue (a lack of physical or mental energy) from sleepiness (an inability to stay awake). People with sleep apnea may also snore or make wheezing, choking, snorting or gasping sounds during sleep, which can be frightening for parents, caregivers or bed partners. In some cases, people with sleep apnea may wake up with headaches or a dry mouth or throat.

What are the risk factors?

Sleep apnea is seen in all age groups, from infants to the elderly, yet the causes may differ. While men are at a much higher risk than women, the risk for women increases after menopause.

Other risk factors include being overweight, smoking, age, use of narcotics, heart disease or a history of stroke. 

Treatments for sleep apnea

If you have been diagnosed with sleep apnea,your doctor may recommend that you lose weight and avoid alcohol and heavy meals in the hours before bedtime. Sleeping on your side instead of your back allows the airway to remain open. Elevating the head of your bed may also provide relief. 

Your doctor may also recommend bilevel positive airway pressure (BPAP) therapy or CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) appliance, the “gold standard” for treating sleep apnea. This device consists of a blower that delivers a small amount of air pressure through a mask that fits over your nose to keep your airway open while you sleep. 

Despite its effectiveness, patients may struggle with wearing the mask and stop using a CPAP. 

Other nonsurgical treatment options include custom-fit dental appliances that move the lower jaw forward so that the tissues of the back of the throat relax and prevent the tongue from collapsing and blocking the airway. 

If you notice any of the signs of sleep apnea, it’s important to mention it to your doctor.

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