From snoring to fatigue to high blood pressure, sleep apnea can cause a variety of symptoms. The main reasons people seek medical treatment for obstructive sleep apnea include the following:
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Snoring, choking and gasping for air are the most common symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea and the primary reasons why people seek medical help. Most (but not all) people with obstructive sleep apnea snore, and often there is also choking or gasping for air. This can suddenly wake up the person with sleep apnea, but it can also disturb others and wake them as well.
Sleepiness, fatigue or problems with memory or concentration related to sleep disruption are other common symptoms. Obstructive sleep apnea can prevent someone from getting deep, refreshing sleep because the blockage of breathing may be most severe at those times. Even when a person is not aware of waking, obstructive sleep apnea can lead to repeated awakenings or coming into lighter sleep. The result is that a person with obstructive sleep apnea may have their eyes closed and feel that they are sleeping all night, yet they may still not be getting restful sleep to allow them to wake up feeling refreshed. This can lead to a wide variety of effects that go with sleep disruption: sleepiness, fatigue, problems with memory or concentration, decreased ability to do complicated tasks (also called executive function) and decreased quality of life. Some individuals can develop moodiness or depressive symptoms.
High blood pressure, atrial fibrillation and other heart-health concerns are other common symptoms. The blockage of breathing that happens in obstructive sleep apnea triggers the fight-or-flight emergency response in the brain and causes a rush of adrenaline to flow throughout the body. The repeated surges of adrenaline can take a toll on the heart and lead to high blood pressure. There are a number of other cardiovascular issues that may occur, including irregular heart rhythms like atrial fibrillation, heart attack and stroke.
Some may experience severe headaches in the morning, particularly if a patient is sleeping at a high elevation, where there are decreased oxygen levels.
Symptoms of Central Sleep Apnea
Although the causes of central sleep apnea are different than obstructive sleep apnea, the effects are similar. Central sleep apnea may also result in sleepiness, fatigue and difficulties with memory or concentration. These symptoms tend to be less pronounced than in obstructive sleep apnea, but they still can be significant.
Central sleep apnea (specifically, Cheyne-Stokes respiration) often occurs with congestive heart failure, and testing to evaluate for sleep apnea may be performed routinely in patients with significant cardiovascular disease.
Sometimes There Is No Obvious Clue
Although most patients with sleep apnea have at least one of the common signs or symptoms, sometimes they do not. Not every patient with sleep apnea fits the mold, and sometimes these symptoms, such as fatigue and high blood pressure, can be caused by other medical conditions. Therefore, individuals and medical providers need to be aware of the different kinds of sleep apnea and perform the appropriate tests if there is a reasonable suspicion.