Have you heard of obstructive sleep apnea? It’s a sleep disorder that gets overlooked—a lot. As many as 80% of people with OSA may not even know they have it.

That’s a shame, for a number of reasons. OSA can really wreak havoc with a sound night’s sleep. A lot of people with OSA feel very tired and fatigued during the day, and may even find themselves nodding off—especially when doing things that don’t take a lot of physical activity, such as sitting at a desk, reading, or watching television.  OSA can also contribute to other health problems such as high blood pressure and other conditions. The good news is that OSA is a very treatable condition once it’s been identified.

So, what is obstructive sleep apnea, exactly? And how can you tell if it’s a sleep problem you have?

When a person has obstructive sleep apnea, their breathing is briefly interrupted during sleep. During sleep, the muscles of the entire body relax, including the muscles of the airway. When the airway relaxes too much, it can interfere with breathing. People with OSA tend to wake up a lot throughout the night—it’s their body’s way of getting their airway open and breathing back to normal. These awakenings can be so brief that you won’t even recall them, but they’re still making your sleep less restful.

Sleep apnea has several symptoms, and one of them is snoring. It’s important to know that snoring isn’t always a sign of sleep apnea. Many people who snore do not have OSA. Sometimes the snoring that comes with sleep apnea is loud, and sometimes it comes and goes periodically throughout the night. Sometimes it can sound like snorting along with gasping for air. People with sleep apnea can wake up enough to realize they’ve been making these kinds of noises, but often they have no idea about the noise they’re making—or about their difficulty breathing. Often, it is bed partners who are aware of snoring and breathing problems.

Here are some other symptoms to look out for if you’re wondering whether you may have sleep apnea:

  • Daytime fatigue and drowsiness
  • Nodding off during the day
  • Trouble with concentration and memory
  • Feelings of irritation and short-temperedness
  • Headaches

640px-Sleep_Stage_N3Ultimately, it’s up to your doctor to make a diagnosis of sleep apnea.  Typically, a diagnosis of sleep apnea involves some form of sleep testing. In many cases, sleep testing for OSA can be done with a portable, take-home sleep monitor, allowing people to be assessed for sleep apnea in their own beds.

People with OSA have a number of options for treatment. Making changes to your daily habits and lifestyle can help to alleviate sleep apnea. Losing weight, quitting smoking and avoiding alcohol are all ways to improve OSA. Changing sleeping positions, to sleep on your side rather than your back, can also help.

Breathing devices are sometimes used to treat sleep apnea—but they aren’t the only option. Mouthpieces, designed to move the lower jaw forward and to help keep airway open, are another frequently used treatment for people with obstructive sleep apnea.

Thinking about sleep apnea can be uncomfortable and even scary. But the best and safest thing you can do for yourself is to treat whatever sleep problems you’re having. Talk to your doctor. If you do have sleep apnea, you and your healthcare provider can work together to find the treatment that’s most comfortable and effective for you.