Sleep Disordered Breathing Explained

Sleep disordered breathing is a common issue in the United States. Whether it be sleep apnea or just the common snoring, the struggle of interrupted sleep is the same; it causes fatigue, irritability, and worrisome health conditions.

So, what exactly is sleep disordered breathing, and what does it mean? Learn more about this and what can be done in the article below. 

What is Sleep Disordered Breathing? 

Sleep disordered breathing is a term for chronic conditions that affect sleep and your breathing during sleep. This is an umbrella term that encompasses many different sleep-related conditions.

Most often, sleep disordered breathing involves partial or complete cessation of breathing throughout the night. 

Types of Sleep Disordered Breathing

1. Central Sleep Apnea

Central sleep apnea is linked to the brain. Your brain stops sending signals to the muscles that control your breathing when you sleep. It is the less common type of sleep apnea. Symptoms include:

  • Snoring
  • Chest pain at night
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Excessive daytime fatigue
  • Frequent awakenings at night
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Morning headaches
  • Observed episodes of abnormal or stopped breathing during sleep 

2. Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea, the most common form of sleep apnea, occurs when the airway is obstructed. This happens due to the soft tissues in the back of your throat relaxing and collapsing during sleep. The tongue can also fall to the back of the throat and cause an obstruction. Symptoms include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Mood changes
  • Intense snoring
  • Awakening with dry mouth or sore throat
  • Frequent awakenings during sleep accompanied by gasping or choking
  • Night time sweating
  • Morning headache
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Excessive daytime fatigue 

3. Upper Airway Resistance Syndrome

UARS is a condition similar to obstructive sleep apnea that was identified by Stanford University. The same issue with the tissues at the back of your throat occurs and disrupts sleep. The difference between the two conditions is that UARS does not create enough resistance in breathing to constitute sleep apnea. Instead, the disturbance only causes a brief awakening from sleep, which often goes unrealized. Symptoms of UARS are similar to symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea but are usually much less severe.

UARS can be described as covering the middle ground between obstructive sleep apnea and chronic snoring. 

Who is Affected by Sleep Disordered Breathing?

Sleep disordered breathing is more likely to affect men than women. It’s also more likely to occur in people who are obese. Certain ethnic groups like African Americans and Asians are at a higher risk of developing a sleep disorder. Other groups such as those with sinus issues, large tonsils, or those who use alcohol, tobacco, and sedatives also run a higher risk of developing any of these conditions.

Although there is more awareness surrounding sleep disordered breathing, many of those who experience symptoms remain undiagnosed. 

Causes of Sleep Disordered Breathing

There is no single cause for sleep apnea or sleep disordered breathing. Rather, factors like genetics, environment, and lifestyle all play a role in the prevalence of sleep disorders.

1. Central Sleep Apnea

Central sleep apnea can be caused by a variety of conditions that impact the brainstem. The brainstem links the brain to your spinal cord and controls functions like your breathing. Some conditions that can hinder this function are brain infection, stroke, or issues of the cervical spine.

Other things that may lead to central sleep apnea include severe obesity, certain medications like opioids or oxycodone, congestive heart failure and kidney disease. These could all be associated with the development of sleep apnea. 

Some factors that could put you at higher risk of central sleep apnea are gender and age. If you are a male and are older than sixty five, you are automatically at a higher risk. Those with abnormal heartbeats, atrial fibrillation, other heart disorders, or those who have had a stroke or brain tumor are also at a higher risk. It has also been found that sleeping at an altitude higher than usual can cause temporary sleep apnea. 

Finally, some of those who use a CPAP machine to treat obstructive sleep apnea may develop a condition known as treatment-emergent central sleep apnea.

 2. Obstructive Sleep Apnea

The most common cause of obstructive sleep apnea in adults is actually obesity. This is due to excess weight affecting the soft tissues in the throat that can cause obstructions. 

Aside from obesity, there are some other factors that can contribute to the development of obstructive sleep apnea. These include having oversized adenoids or tonsils or a severe overbite. A tumor in the throat or airway could also cause obstructive sleep apnea. 

Cardiovascular disease is also connected to obstructive sleep apnea; issues like atrial fibrillation or heart attack can bring on symptoms. Severe allergies could also cause this condition to develop. Those with hypothyroidism, an excessive production of growth hormone, or a deviated septum can all be at an increased risk of obstructive sleep apnea. 

There are a couple of birth defects that may play a role in the prevalence of obstructive sleep apnea. For example, Down syndrome can cause enlargement of the tongue, adenoids, and tonsils. It can also create decreased muscle tone in the airway, putting them at higher risk of collapse. Pierre-Robin syndrome tends to create a smaller lower jaw which causes the tongue to fall to the back of the throat during sleep and cause obstructions.

3. Upper Airway Resistance Syndrome

Upper airway resistance syndrome causes are again, similar to causes of obstructive sleep apnea. UARS can be caused by a naturally narrowed airway, or, like obstructive sleep apnea, from tissues collapsing or bad motor tone of the tongue. 

Many people progress from simple snoring to having symptoms of UARS as they get older and the muscle tone in the throat decreases. In addition, excess weight can also cause someone to develop UARS. 

Women who have gone through or are going through menopause and women in their third trimester of pregnancy are more likely to experience UARS. 

How is Sleep Disordered Breathing Diagnosed? 

Unfortunately, there is still a lack of awareness within the realm of sleep disorders. Diagnosis tends to be delayed or even simply never happens, mostly because patients ignore the seriousness of what trouble sleeping could mean. 

For those who do undergo diagnosis and treatment, there are a few steps usually taken to help diagnose sleep disordered breathing. The process varies from physician to physician. Here at Advanced Sleep Centers of Virginia, though, we take diagnosis of sleep disorders very seriously and use a variety of tools to help reach an accurate diagnosis. 

One of the first things we recommend doing is taking the STOP-Bang questionnaire. If you have never heard of this, you can learn more about it here. The STOP-Bang questionnaire is a self-administered questionnaire that analyzes what type of risk level you are at for sleep apnea. If you score at a moderate or high level, we recommend scheduling a free consultation with us to further investigate. 

Another tool to use is the Epworth Sleepiness Scale. This is another self-administered questionnaire that measures daytime fatigue levels and can help raise awareness for underlying medical conditions. If you score highly on the scale,  you might be dealing with an underlying problem, like a sleep disorder. This tool also helps us determine if you need further testing. 

If you schedule a consultation and are dealing with snoring, you may be asked to use the free app Snorelab to monitor your snoring for a night before coming in to the office. This app is simple and easy to use; just keep it on your nightstand and press record before going to sleep. It will track your snoring and provide helpful insight to the physician about your snoring patterns. 

Once you come in for your consultation, you can expect a simple physical examination of your throat and nose along with questions regarding your medical history and symptoms. Depending on your symptoms, further testing may be required. 

Home sleep studies are something we use to help gather insight into your sleeping without the invasiveness of a facility sleep study.

Home sleep studies are significantly more comfortable and convenient for both the patient and doctors. You will receive a few pieces of equipment to conduct your home sleep study.

All you need to do is follow the directions on how to use the equipment and set it up before going to sleep. The rest is done for you! The following morning, you can send the data to your physician and either throw away or return the equipment, depending on what the physician prefers.

Another test you may be asked to undergo, but is less common, is an electroencephalogram. This is a test that assesses the electrical activity in the brain and can help determine if there are any potential problems associated with the activity. This is specifically helpful in diagnosing conditions that may impact the brainstem, like central sleep apnea, seizures, or other brain disorders. Small flat metal discs, or electrodes, are attached to the scalp and analyze the electrical activity of the brain. This information is transferred through wires to the computer and translated into results. 

Finally, a blood test is commonly used in the diagnosis process. Blood tests can detect narcolepsy and other underlying health conditions that could be contributing to your sleeping problems. 

Once you have a diagnosis, our sleep specialists will create a treatment plan designed specifically for you and your needs, to help you get the best night’s rest possible. 

Connections to Sleep Disordered Breathing 

Sleep disordered breathing means more than just struggles sleeping; in fact, sleep apnea and other sleep conditions are directly linked to other health problems, including cardiovascular disease and even psychiatric illnesses. 

Because sleep apnea causes increased stress on the heart and its functions, the left atrium of the heart can easily become inflamed and lead to atrial fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation is a common type of cardiac arrhythmia, or an abnormal heartbeat, and makes it difficult for your heart to pump blood. This means higher risk of blood clots, strokes, and heart attacks. 

People with sleep apnea have a doubled risk of developing AFib, and often don’t even realize they are struggling with AFib. But treating sleep apnea can help significantly in reversing AFib and promoting good cardiovascular health. 

In addition, sleep apnea and high blood pressure are directly related. High blood pressure is already a huge concern, known as the “silent killer” that if left untreated, leads to heart disease, a leading cause of death. Sleep apnea itself affects oxygen levels, and when oxygen levels decrease, blood pressure increases. This creates a vicious cycle that can potentially be fatal if left to continue. 

It’s important to look into sleep apnea and your cardiovascular health if you’re struggling with one or the other. But cardiovascular issues aren’t the only risks involved with sleep disordered breathing. 

Sleep health has long been linked to mental health. In many cases of sleep apnea and other sleep disorders like insomnia and narcolepsy, psychiatric illnesses coexist. These illnesses include bipolar disorder, anxiety or panic disorder, depression, and even schizophrenia. 

Many symptoms of mental health disorders and sleep disorders overlap, which makes it difficult to truly distinguish between the two and have a clear diagnosis. 

Mental health is just as important as physical health, and the combination of psychiatric illness with sleep disordered breathing is a dangerous one. The best thing you can do for yourself is research both problems and visiting a sleep specialist here at Advanced Sleep Solutions of Virginia. 

Professional Treatments for Sleep Disordered Breathing 

There are many options to consider for treating sleep disordered breathing. 

In the past, CPAP therapy has been a primary treatment option, especially for severe sleep apnea cases. But many patients find this treatment to be invasive, uncomfortable, and inconvenient, and it can come with some unwanted side effects. You can learn more about the most common issues a CPAP poses for patients here

In recent years, other treatment options have arisen that can be more comfortable for patients than using a CPAP. One of the best treatment options is oral appliance therapy, in which you wear a small oral appliance, similar to a mouth guard, during sleep. The appliance positions the lower jaw slightly forward and helps keep the tongue in place to help prevent obstructions and snoring. Oral appliance therapy is noninvasive, convenient, easy to maintain, and comfortable for the user. 

There are also various surgeries that can be done to help correct sleep disordered breathing, many of them simple outpatient procedures. For example, removing enlarged tonsils or adenoids can make a big difference in issues guided by congestion. There is also UPPP, a procedure that targets the back roof of your mouth and removes excess tissue to open the airway. Another common surgery is hyoid suspension, which enlarges the space for breathing in the lower part of the throat by pulling the hyoid bone in the neck forward. 

Aside from professional treatment, there are lifestyle changes you can make from home to help alleviate many of your symptoms. 

What You Can Do From Home 

There are many ways to alleviate symptoms of sleep disorders from home. You can view a complete list here, complete with apps to help you sleep better. Some of the most recommended tricks are:

  1. Lose Weight

Losing weight is not only going to be helpful for your sleep, but also for every other aspect of your life. Being at a healthy weight helps you sleep easier, have more energy, and feel more positive. 


2. Eat Healthy

Eating a healthy diet goes hand in hand with weight loss. A healthy diet will boost your energy and mood and help you lose weight, which will all add up to a better night’s sleep. 

3. Use Essential Oils

We love essential oils! They are a safe and natural remedy for many different things. Certain oils like lavender, react with your body in a way that promotes sleep and relaxation. Other oils can help with problems like anxiety, inflammation, and even appetite. Essential oils are not regulated by the FDA, so be sure to do your research for quality control. We recommend Doterra

4. Avoid Caffeine, Alcohol and Tobacco 

These are all stimulants that can create problems in more than just your sleep health. Caffeine can be a great boost in the morning, but consuming too much, especially too late, can seriously impact both your sleep quality and your mood. Try not to consume any caffeine after 2 pm.

As for alcohol, this stimulant, when consumed too late, can disrupt sleep. It can cause nightmares, severe drowsiness during the day, and interrupted sleep at night (you might find yourself using the bathroom way too many times). You don’t have to give up alcohol completely, but be mindful of how much and when you choose to consume it.

Tobacco is a huge health risk, especially when it comes to smoking it. Aside from ruining your lungs, it can disrupt sleep and cause major sleep deprivation, which can lead to fatigue, headaches, and even hallucinations. It’s best to stay away from tobacco altogether for the sake of your health. 

5. Exercise Regularly 

Finally, regular exercise can help you get deeper, better sleep at night (as long as you don’t exercise right before bed!) and boost your mood and energy levels. We recommend setting an exercise schedule. The best time is usually in the morning, and you should exercise at least 3 times a week. You could do yoga, go for a bike ride, or swim. Your body and mind will appreciate it!

Beat Sleep Disordered Breathing Today 

It might be hard to tell if your sleep health is struggling due to simple stress or something more, but it’s always best to be sure. If you’re experiencing symptoms of any kind of sleep disordered breathing, visit us! 

We have a highly trained team of highly-trained sleep professionals ready to help you get the best night’s sleep possible. Your comfort is our first priority, which is why we offer at-home sleep tests, online scheduling, and a secure telemedicine portal where you can contact a professional at any point.

Concerned about your sleep health? We are here to help. Make an appointment online or call us at (703) 689-2480 to schedule your free consultation! 

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