Unlocking the secrets to sound sleep: understanding and managing sleep apnea

Posted by Sarah Tyre on 1/8/24 8:57 AM

A good night's sleep is one of the most crucial factors for a long, healthy life. An inability to get a restful slumber can sometimes lead to dangerous health complications. Approximately 30 million American adults have sleep apnea, a sleep disorder in which your breathing can repeatedly start and stop, inhibiting one’s ability to get a good night’s rest.

Dr. Scott McCuskerDr. Scott McCusker, an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist with Dignity Health Mercy Medical Group, shares signs, dangers and treatment options relating to sleep apnea. 

Signs you may have sleep apnea 

The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which occurs when the throat muscles relax and block airflow into the lungs. Snoring is an easily recognizable symptom of OSA. According to the CDC, people with OSA characteristically make periodic gasping or “snorting” noises, during which their sleep is momentarily interrupted. 

“Additional signs of OSA include waking with a headache and excessive daytime sleepiness or irritability,” says Dr. McCusker. “People may often be unaware of these symptoms and another person sleeping near them is usually the one to notice gasping noises first.”

Factors that might increase the risk of sleep apnea are being overweight, having a narrowed airway, family history, alcohol consumption and smoking. Research from the CDC also indicates a higher likelihood of developing sleep apnea in men over the age of 60 who have larger than average tonsils.

OSA often shows up differently in women than in men, resulting in women being underdiagnosed. Women tend to have more severe symptoms, especially tiredness and poor cognitive performance, even with less severe disease. This is true even for women  at lower BMIs. With proper diagnosis and treatment, both men and women can get great results.

Potential dangers of sleep apnea

OSA occurs when the airway collapses during sleep and blocks the flow of oxygen to the brain. The brain senses a lack of oxygen and wakes the body up just long enough to take a breath, then falls back asleep. This cycle repeats throughout the night and causes poor, disruptive sleep. When left untreated, OSA can cause vehicle and workplace accidents, worsening mood and memory, stroke, heart attack, and even death.

“Untreated sleep apnea can take up to 10 years off someone’s life,” says Dr. McCusker. “Specifically, it can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, lung disease, cognitive impairment, and more.”

Diabetes has also been linked to insufficient sleep caused by OSA. People with sleep apnea have also been found to be at increased risk for a number of cardiovascular diseases, and research shows that there may be a connection between sleep apnea and excess body weight, particularly in older adults.

Three treatment types

Oral appliances, similar to mouthguards you wear at night, are often used to treat OSA. These devices work by preventing the tongue from blocking the airway during sleep. For patients who qualify, an oral appliance can be a comfortable, minimally-invasive treatment option. It is important to note, however, that this treatment is not effective for patients with severe symptoms. 

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is a common treatment for sleep apnea that uses mild air pressure through a bedside machine to keep the airway open during sleep. 

“CPAP is a great option for many patients, but some people have trouble using it,” says Dr. McCusker. “Up to 40% of patients in one study weren't able to use it as prescribed, and if you are not wearing it, you’re not getting the benefit.”

The Inspire procedure is an FDA-approved OSA treatment option for people with moderate to severe symptoms who have trouble using CPAP therapy. The Inspire system is implanted during a short, outpatient procedure and works inside the body with a patient’s natural breathing process to treat the disorder. Mild stimulation opens the airway during sleep, allowing oxygen to flow naturally. The patient uses a small handheld remote to turn Inspire on before bed and off when they wake up.  To learn more about Inspire, please visit

Traditional surgery is also available for adult patients who do not qualify for the Inspire procedure and are not able to use CPAP therapy. Talk to your doctor about which treatment type is right for you. 

Behavioral changes can help

The number one lifestyle modification that helps lower the risk of sleep apnea is maintaining a healthy weight. However, being at a healthy weight does not guarantee OSA-free sleep. Even people with an optimal body mass index can still have significant sleep apnea.

“We know it’s often hard for sleep apnea patients to lose weight because inadequate sleep makes it more difficult," says Dr. McCusker. "So treating sleep apnea can have the double benefit of helping with weight loss.”

Key Takeaways 

Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder that can lead to dangerous health complications. Fortunately, treatment options are available to help. 

If you think you may have, or be at risk for developing sleep apnea, schedule an appointment with your primary care physician. Our “Find a Doctor” tool can help you find a Dignity Health physician near you.

Meet Scott McCusker, MD


Topics: Mercy Medical Group, Surgery, Sleep Disorders, Ear Nose & Throat, Dignity Health Mercy Medical Group

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