Why a Sleep Apnea Diagnosis May Save Your Life

How to know if you have sleep apnea and what to do about it

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It's one of the most underdiagnosed conditions around, and I'd argue that, in a sense, the diagnosis of sleep apnea is more a blessing than a curse.

For those who aren't familiar with sleep apnea, its most common form, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), causes sufferers to stop breathing periodically throughout the night, or breathe so shallowly that the oxygenation level of their blood plummets, leaving their bodies in an almost nightlong state of metabolic panic.

In severe cases, a person may wake up dozens of times an hour, yet these micro-awakenings aren't usually conscious ones, and so sufferers might well have no idea they're even happening. More than just a tiring nuisance, people with OSA are at greater risk of developing a myriad of medical conditions including heart disease, heart attack, obesity, depression, and sudden death.

[See 7 Steps Toward a Healthy Heart (and Long Life)]

While weight itself is a tremendous risk factor for the development of OSA, neck architecture is also involved, consequently, simply because you might be at a lighter weight doesn't exclude you from the possibility of having OSA.

[See 5 Weight-Loss Tricks That Don't Involve Dieting or (Much) Exercise]

Symptoms of sleep apnea vary, but the most common ones include never feeling well rested, even after a good night's sleep; excessive daytime or afternoon sleepines; and morning headaches. Partners of individuals with OSA may complain that they snore excessively; they may also note hearing actual pauses in their partner's breathing, which often resumes with grunts, gasps or snorts.

Screening tests for sleep apnea can occur at home via home-testing kits, but the gold standard of testing involves spending a night in a sleep lab hooked up to more electrodes than you can imagine. And while being hooked up to electrodes does make it more challenging to sleep, you only need to be out for an hour or two to get a definitive reading.

The reason I suggest the diagnosis is more a blessing than a curse is how incredibly effective OSA's non-drug treatment can be, and how life changing it often is. People who've suffered unknowingly with OSA will sometimes report, even after a single night of treatment, that they feel more energetic than they have in years.

[See Diet and Fitness Tips to Help You Sleep]

So besides reducing the risk of sudden death, treatment markedly improves quality of life. On the other hand, if you've got symptoms suggestive of OSA, yet the sleep lab tells you you're fine, well then you might well be stuck being perpetually tired.

[See Top-Recommended Sleep Aids]

Treatment options vary from devices that help to keep a person off of their back (where OSA is often worst) to dental devices as well as CPAP and APAP machines, which use air to keep the airways open, and even surgeries.

If you'd like to take a simple test to determine whether or not you might want to consider testing for sleep apnea, just answer the following eight questions. If you reply with three or more yeses, I'd strongly encourage you to ask your physician to organize a night for you in the sleep lab.

1. Do you snore loudly?

2. Do you feel tired during the day?

3. Has anyone ever seen you stop breathing during your sleep?

4. Do you have high blood pressure (high blood pressure that's been treated counts as high blood pressure)?

5. Is your BMI greater than 35?

6. Are you older than age 50?

7. Is your neck size greater than 15.75 inches?

8. Are you male?

[See In Pictures: 11 Health Habits That Will Help You Live to 100]

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, where he's the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute—dedicated to non-surgical weight management since 2004. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters, and is also easily reachable on Twitter. Dr. Freedhoff's latest book Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work will be published by Random House's Crown/Harmony in 2014.