Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen, University of Utah
Imagine this: you’re sitting cross legged on the grass, facing a lake that is shimmering with crystal clear water. The sun is shining; you feel the slightly damp grass through the thin material of your yoga pants. Far off in the distance, a rooster crows. A little closer by, a bird sweetly chirps its song.
Suddenly, you hear a blast in the air as a loud, thundering truck charges through, its horn booming in your ear. Wait, that’s not right.
You wake up in a panic, sweat pouring down your face. That wasn’t how the dream was supposed to go. Now partially awake, you hear another truck-like sound off to your side and you remember–you’re in bed. Oh. You turn your head. Him again. You groan and lay back down, trying to use your pillow as ear plugs. Maybe you should have slept on the couch.
Does this scenario sound familiar to you? If so, it might help you to know that you are not alone. According to the director of Cleveland Clinic’s Sleep Disorders Center, Nancy Foldvary-Schaeffer, at least 9 percent of women and 24 percent of men are affected by sleep apnea.
That’s a lot, isn’t it? So what exactly is sleep apnea?
As noted above, sleep apnea is a disorder that affects millions of people worldwide. It’s categorized by one’s breathing repeatedly stopping and starting during the night – and snoring is just a symptom of this. If your partner sounds like a truck and wakes up feeling less than refreshed, they might just have sleep apnea. According to the National Sleep Foundation, people who suffer from sleep apnea are more likely to suffer from hypertension, heart disease, and mood and memory problems. It has also been linked with drowsy driving, which can lead to fatal accidents.
I’ve been diagnosed–now what?
One of the most common forms of treatment is the use of a CPAP machine (continuous positive airway pressure device). The CPAP is a mask that is fitted over your mouth and/or nose that blows air into your airway to help keep it open while you’re sleeping. When used exactly as directed by your doctor, this form of treatment is considered to be highly effective in treating sleep apnea. But remember, your doctor takes no responsibility for any increase in dreams revolving around Darth Vader’s infamous deep breathing noises. Who knows? Maybe his descent into the dark side could have been prevented had he been treated for sleep apnea.
If you aren’t a fan of Darth Vader-like breathing, there’s another form of treatment that may be more appealing. Unlike the CPAP, which is placed over your face, there are dental appliances that are fitted specifically by a dentist to conform to your particular mouth. The purpose of this mouth guard is to help reposition the lower jaw and tongue, hopefully preventing the obstruction of the airway.
If these forms of treatment aren’t as effective, your doctor may suggest a more invasive treatment that involves a hypoglossal nerve stimulator. This involves surgery, during which the stimulator is implanted into the patient’s chest and is connected to the hypoglossal nerve, which is the main nerve that controls your tongue’s motions. It is also connected to a breathing monitor that keeps track of your breathing patterns while you sleep and if needed, stimulates the hypoglossal nerve to move your tongue out of the way and prevent it from blocking your airway.
So the next time your partner starts sounding like Darth Vader, consider dragging them to the doctor and seeing if one of the treatments for sleep apnea is right for them. Preventing a descent into the dark side may only be a good night’s sleep away.