Many heart patients suffer from a condition known as sleep apnea which can lead to other issues if left untreated. There are different kinds of sleep apnea, different causes, and different treatment options available. But one very important question to ask is “can sleep apnea be cured”?
In this article I’ll answer this question along with everything else you want to know about this life-altering condition.
And if you’re wondering why the heck we humans sleep in the first place or why its important for heart health, this article on why sleeping is important will fill you in.
Table of Contents
What is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder characterized by repeated pauses in breathing during sleep. These pauses, called apneas, can last for several seconds to a minute or more and may occur multiple times throughout the night.
According to the American College of Cardiology, about 18 million American adults suffer from sleep apnea. Sleep apnea affects about 50% of those suffering from heart failure or atrial fibrillation and 33% of people with hypertension and coronary artery disease!
If you have at least 5 episodes of 10-second pauses in breathing per hour while sleeping, then you most likely have sleep apnea.
There are many other tell-tale signs of sleep apnea that you or your partner may notice.
Symptoms of Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea can be difficult to diagnose on your own, but there are several symptoms that you or your partner may notice to indicate that you may have the condition. These include:
- Loud and persistent snoring
- Episodes of gasping or choking during sleep
- Pauses in breathing during sleep, which may be noticed by a partner
- Daytime sleepiness or fatigue, even after a full night’s sleep
- Difficulty concentrating or remembering things
- Morning headaches
- Dry mouth or sore throat upon waking
- Mood changes such as irritability or depression
- High blood pressure
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it is important to speak with a healthcare professional who can evaluate your symptoms and recommend diagnostic testing if necessary.
>>Skip to Diagnosis of Sleep Apnea below for more<<
Health Issues Related to Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea can increase your risk of a variety of health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and depression (1). It can also cause daytime sleepiness and fatigue, which can affect work performance and increase the risk of accidents while driving or operating machinery.
To see which medical conditions may lead to sleep apnea, skip to “Medical Causes” below.
Can Sleep Apnea Kill You?
This thought is very alarming, as it should be. However, you are not likely to die directly from sleep apnea. Though the conditions related to sleep apnea can significantly decrease your life expectancy if left untreated.
For example, sleep apnea can lead to heart disease, which puts you at a higher risk of having a stroke or cardiac arrest, which could cause death.
Types of Sleep Apnea
Yes, there are different types of sleep apnea. In fact, there are three types of sleep apnea. Let’s go over each one briefly.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea
This is the most common type of sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) occurs when the muscles in the back of the throat fail to keep the airway open during sleep, causing breathing to stop and start repeatedly.
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, approximately 936 million adults aged 30 to 69 years have mild to severe obstructive sleep apnea syndrome (OSAS), and 425 million adults aged between 30 and 69 years have moderate to severe OSAS.
There is even a condition called hypopnea, which is the partial blockage of air through your airway.
Central Sleep Apnea
Central sleep apnea (CSA), another type of sleep apnea, occurs when the brain fails to signal the muscles to breathe during sleep.
This condition is also very serious, as it disrupts normal sleep patterns, potentially leading to dangerous health conditions. Unlike obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea is rare, affecting <1% of the overall population however, it is common in those with heart failure.
Risk factors for CSA can be seen in TABLE 1 below.
I cannot talk about central sleep apnea without also mentioning Cheyne-Stokes respirations (CSR).
Cheyne-Stokes respirations are the characteristic waxing and waning breathing pattern that is common in those with central sleep apnea and congestive heart failure. This is when there are long pauses in breathing followed by episodes of hyperventilation or shallow, rapid breathing (3).
This pattern is also often seen near the end of life and can last anywhere from hours to days.
|Obstructive Sleep Apnea
|Central Sleep Apnea
|>50 years of age
|>50 years of age
|History of stroke
Complex Sleep Apnea Syndrome
Complex sleep apnea syndrome, also known as treatment-emergent central sleep apnea, is a type of sleep apnea that occurs when someone with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) develops central sleep apnea (CSA) after using continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy.
Therefore, it is a combination of obstructive sleep apnea AND central sleep apnea. This requires a more comprehensive approach to treatment, including using a CPAP machine with adjusted pressure settings to help stabilize breathing during sleep.
Complex sleep apnea has the same type of symptoms and health risks as other apneas.
Causes of Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea can be caused by a variety of factors, including a narrow airway, obesity, or neurological conditions that affect breathing. These are related to physical, lifestyle, and/or medical conditions that bring it on.
There are many physical causes of sleep apnea. You may experience one or a combination of these.
Some can be corrected with surgery, while others may be corrected with lifestyle changes. However, other physical causes may be out of your control. These physical causes include:
- Obstructed Airway: The most common cause of sleep apnea is an obstructed airway, which can be due to several factors such as enlarged tonsils, excess weight, or a narrow throat.
- Obesity: Excess weight can lead to the accumulation of fat around the neck, which can obstruct the airway and contribute to sleep apnea.
- Aging: As people age, the muscles in the throat may weaken, making it more difficult to keep the airway open during sleep.
- Nasal Congestion: Chronic nasal congestion due to allergies or other conditions can make it difficult to breathe through the nose during sleep, leading to sleep apnea.
- Facial or Jaw Abnormalities: Structural abnormalities in the face or jaw, such as a small jaw or a deviated septum, can contribute to sleep apnea.
- Neurological Conditions: Certain neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, stroke, or brain injury can affect the ability to breathe during sleep, leading to sleep apnea.
Next, there are lifestyle factors related to sleep apnea. These are things you may be able to adjust in your life to help make symptoms of sleep apnea better. These lifestyle causes include:
- Excess weight: Being overweight or obese is a major risk factor for sleep apnea, as the extra weight can cause fat to accumulate around the neck, narrowing the airway.
- Alcohol and sedatives: Alcohol and sedatives can relax the muscles in the throat, making it more likely that the airway will become blocked during sleep.
- Smoking: Smoking can cause inflammation and fluid retention in the airway, making it more difficult to breathe during sleep.
- Sleeping position: Sleeping on your back can make it more likely that the airway will become blocked during sleep, as gravity can cause the tongue and other tissues in the throat to fall back and block the airway.
- Poor sleep hygiene: Poor sleep habits such as irregular sleep schedules, insufficient sleep, and poor sleep quality can contribute to sleep apnea.
- Poor diet: A diet high in processed foods, refined carbohydrates, and saturated fats may increase the risk of sleep apnea.
And finally, there are medical causes of sleep apnea. These include both medical conditions that make you more prone to sleep apnea as well as medications that may cause it.
Certain medical conditions and diagnoses are linked to sleep apnea and may increase your risk. These conditions include:
- Hypothyroidism: An underactive thyroid gland can cause hormonal imbalances that affect the muscles in the throat, making it more difficult to keep the airway open during sleep.
- Acromegaly: A condition that causes the body to produce too much growth hormone, which can lead to the enlargement of soft tissues in the throat, contributing to sleep apnea.
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS): Women with PCOS may be at increased risk of sleep apnea due to hormonal imbalances that affect the muscles in the throat.
- Congestive heart failure: People with congestive heart failure may be at increased risk of sleep apnea due to fluid buildup in the lungs and airway, making it more difficult to breathe during sleep.
- Neuromuscular disorders: Certain neuromuscular disorders such as muscular dystrophy or multiple sclerosis can affect the muscles involved in breathing, contributing to sleep apnea.
- Parkinson’s disease: Parkinson’s disease can affect the muscles involved in breathing, making it more difficult to maintain a regular breathing pattern during sleep.
Using specific medications can also contribute to symptoms of sleep apnea. Specifically, central nervous system depressants, including muscle relaxants, narcotics, alcohol, and hypnotic medications, can increase the risk of sleep apneas. Additionally, individuals who are already susceptible to heart diseases may have a higher incidence when taking these medications (4).
Diagnosis of Sleep Apnea
There are several ways to diagnose sleep apnea. Some require simple scans while others require a visit to a special facility and an overnight stay. Here are a few tests your doctor may recommend for you if they are suspicious of a sleep apnea diagnosis:
Medical Tests– These include sleep latency testing which evaluates daytime sleepiness, blood tests to evaluate for certain medical conditions that may be contributing, or imaging tests like X-rays, CT scans, or MRIs to evaluate the structure of your airway.
Polysomnography– This is the most common test used to diagnose sleep apnea. It involves spending a night in a sleep lab while connected to equipment that monitors various bodily functions during sleep, including brain activity, eye movement, heart rate, breathing, and oxygen levels.
Home Sleep Apnea Testing– This test involves wearing a portable device that monitors your breathing, oxygen levels, and heart rate while you sleep in your bed at home. It’s typically recommended for people with a high likelihood of moderate to severe sleep apnea.
Treatment Options for Sleep Apnea
Getting diagnosed with sleep apnea is not a death sentence. Here are a few treatment options, including many lifestyle changes you can make to help alleviate your symptoms of sleep apnea.
To learn more about some of these treatment options, read “5 Things You Can Do to Support Heart Health NOW“.
Exercise and Weight Loss
Regular exercise can help improve overall health and reduce excess weight, which can contribute to sleep apnea symptoms. Exercise can also improve sleep quality and reduce daytime sleepiness.
Dietary changes to lose weight can help reduce sleep apnea symptoms significantly. To support weight loss, try following a balanced diet that is low in calories and high in fiber.
Limiting sodium in your diet can also help by reducing fluid retention, especially if you have heart disease. Try limiting processed foods and adding more fresh fruits and vegetables to your diet.
An anti-inflammatory diet or Mediterranean diet may also be beneficial. This is because inflammation can contribute to sleep apnea symptoms, so reducing it through dietary changes may be helpful.
Some recipes to try:
Avoiding Alcohol and Sedatives
Alcohol and sedatives are central nervous system depressants that can cause relaxation of the upper airway muscles and impair the brain’s ability to control breathing during sleep, leading to sleep apnea.
Alcohol has been shown to increase the number and severity of sleep apnea episodes in both healthy individuals and those with preexisting sleep apnea. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that even moderate alcohol consumption can lead to a significant increase in sleep apnea events and oxygen desaturation during sleep (5). This relationship was noted specifically for males in this study, not females.
Sedatives, including benzodiazepines and barbiturates, can also increase the risk of sleep apnea by causing relaxation of the upper airway muscles and reducing the drive to breathe. A study published in the American Journal of Medicine found that the use of sedatives was associated with an increased risk of sleep-disordered breathing, including sleep apnea in those with a recent myocardial infarction (6).
Smoking can contribute to inflammation, fluid retention, and irritation of the airways, which can worsen sleep apnea symptoms. Quitting smoking or avoiding exposure to secondhand smoke can help.
Related article: How Can Refraining From Smoking Benefit an Individual’s Health?
Good Sleep Habits
Maintaining good sleep habits can help improve sleep quality and reduce sleep apnea symptoms. This includes establishing a regular sleep schedule, creating a relaxing sleep environment, and avoiding screen time before bedtime.
Related article: Why Sleeping Is Important for Health [And How To Get More!]
Sleeping position relates to sleep apnea because depending on your position, you could be making it more difficult to breathe throughout the night by restricting your airway.
For example, while sleeping on your back your airway is more likely to become blocked during sleep, as gravity can cause the tongue and other tissues in the throat to fall back and block the airway.
Something as simple as changing your sleep position can improve sleep apnea. So what is the best sleeping position for sleep apnea?
Sleeping on your side instead of your back can help reduce sleep apnea symptoms.
Proper pillow support is also highly recommended. Some people find that using a special pillow or device to encourage side-sleeping can be helpful. This allows support to your head and neck, keeping them in the best possible position while you sleep.
Stress can contribute to poor sleep quality and worsen sleep apnea symptoms. Incorporating stress-reducing activities such as meditation or deep breathing exercises can help. Making stress reduction a part of your bedtime routine is also a good practice.
Adult coloring books are also available to aid in stress reduction. I’ve even created one just for heart patients!
Related article: Maintaining a Healthful Diet During Times of Stress (2022)
CPAP stands for continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy, which uses a machine to deliver a constant flow of air to keep the airway open during sleep. Of all treatment options for sleep apnea, this is the gold standard according to the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (7).
While CPAP use is very beneficial and effective, many people do not like the claustrophobic feeling they get from using the mask or having to wear it overnight.
Additionally, only 20-80% of those using a CPAP machine actually adhere to the guidelines for use (7).
These are dental devices that you can use to treat your sleep apnea at night. They could be mandibular advancement devices, mouth guards, or tongue-retaining devices. These work by helping to position your jaw or tongue to open your upper airway.
According to one Harvard doctor, these appliances can be uncomfortable and only work 50% of the time. Though another study reports that oral appliances are becoming more popular due to their lower cost, portability, and convenience, when compared to a CPAP which needs a power source for its use.
Patented and custom-made appliances are available for sleep apnea treatment.
Surgery is typically considered a last resort when other treatments such as lifestyle changes, oral appliances, or continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy have not been effective.
Some surgical options for sleep apnea include:
- Uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP): This is the most common surgical procedure for sleep apnea and involves removing the excess tissue from the throat, including the uvula, tonsils, and part of the soft palate.
- Maxillomandibular advancement (MMA): This procedure involves moving the upper and lower jaw forward to enlarge the space in the airway and reduce airway obstruction.
- Nasal surgery: Surgery to correct structural abnormalities in the nasal passages, such as a deviated septum or nasal polyps, may be recommended for people with sleep apnea who also have nasal obstruction.
- Tracheostomy: In rare cases of severe sleep apnea, a tracheostomy may be recommended. This involves creating a hole in the neck and inserting a tube into the windpipe to bypass the upper airway obstruction.
Remember, with any surgical procedure there are risks and potential complications. You should also talk to your doctor about these risks versus the benefits in order to make an informed decision.
Finally, in terms of treatment options for sleep apnea, there are alternative therapies including 1) acupuncture and 2) hypoglossal nerve stimulation.
Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine technique that involves inserting fine needles into specific points on the body to help reduce inflammation and improve breathing. Studies show that acupuncture may be an effective treatment for both sleep apnea and hypopnea (8).
Hypoglossal nerve stimulation is a therapy that involves surgically implanting a device that electrically stimulates the hypoglossal nerve to help keep the airway open during sleep. This may be an option if you have moderate or severe OSA, if you don’t qualify for a CPAP machine, or have difficulty tolerating a CPAP. Talk to your doctor to see if you meet all of the qualifications.
Can Sleep Apnea be Cured?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of the word cure means “recovery or relief from a disease”. So in this sense, it does seem there are ways to “cure” sleep apnea.
There are multiple dietary and lifestyle recommendations that you can follow each day to treat and relieve your symptoms of sleep apnea.
Success Rates of Various Treatment Options
With any of these treatment options for sleep apnea, your success rate is highly related to how compliant you are with your treatment. As I mentioned above, a CPAP machine is the gold standard. However, you have to use it consistently. Or if prescribed an oral device, you have to wear it every single night.
The success rate for surgical options varies from 25% to 100% with most studies reporting a 50-70% success rate (9).
And if deciding between a CPAP and an oral appliance, the Mayo Clinic reports that a CPAP is more effective than oral appliances for treating sleep apnea (10).
There is some evidence that having a family member with obstructive sleep apnea increases your chances of developing it. Research from the journal Respirology reports that people with a family history of sleep apnea are about 40% more likely to develop the condition themselves (11).
Yes, not everyone with sleep apnea will experience snoring. In fact, some people may have no symptoms at all. In this case, a diagnosis will require a sleep study or other medical testing.
Average life expectancy is uncertain, as this relates to how severe your sleep apnea is, other health conditions you may have, and lifestyle factors. Sleep apnea is linked to numerous other serious health problems however, including high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and depression which can worsen your outcome.
Yes, sleep apnea can cause weight gain in some individuals by making them too sleepy during the day to exercise, disrupting hormones that regulate appetite and metabolism, and causing insulin resistance which can lead to diabetes in addition to weight gain.
In conclusion, if you’re wondering if sleep apnea can be cured, it really depends on several factors. Some of which include YOUR compliance with treatment options.
Sleep apnea is a serious medical condition that can lead to other health issues and decrease your life expectancy if you don’t seek help for it. Furthermore, some medical conditions, lifestyle factors, or medication can lead to the development of sleep apnea.
There are many treatment options you can try, with surgery being the last resort. First, your doctor may recommend a CPAP machine and encourage you to lose weight by exercising and following a healthy diet.
It’s important for anyone who suspects that they may have sleep apnea to seek medical attention and undergo proper testing and diagnosis. With proper treatment, most people with sleep apnea can improve their symptoms, get better sleep, and enjoy better overall health and quality of life.
Kiran Campbell is a registered dietitian and entrepreneur with 14 years of experience. She also has a Bachelor’s degree in psychology and is a proud member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the Cardiovascular Health and Well-being Dietetics Practice Group. Kiran proudly presents and promotes the most up-to-date, science-based nutrition information on all things heart-related. She aims to serve not only individuals with heart disease, but also those wanting to protect against it. Learn more about Kiran by visiting her About Page.