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Young man in bed with eyes opened suffering insomnia and sleep disorder

Imagine that every night, instead of a few restful hours of sleep, you’re led out onto a stage in front of thousands of people and told that you must deliver a speech that you haven’t practiced. Your heart rate would spike, your blood pressure would skyrocket, and stress hormones and increased levels of blood sugar would flood your system.

That’s also what happens when you try to sleep through the night with untreated sleep apnea.

When most people think about the ill effects of sleep apnea, they’re thinking about the fatigue and sleepiness that follows a night of poor, oxygen-deprived sleep. Or they’re thinking about the emotional stress of dealing with a partner who keeps them up all night with incessant snoring.

There are several treatments that are effective in reducing the severity or completely eliminating sleep apnea. But when left untreated, the dangerous effects of sleep apnea run much, much deeper. If left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to a frightening array of severe, chronic health conditions and, in extreme cases, death. Below, we’ll take a look at some of the major health risks associated with untreated sleep apnea.

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a condition that causes you to temporarily stop breathing while you sleep. Each time this happens, your brain recognizes the lack of oxygen and wakes you up just enough to start breathing again.

A patient’s apnea can fit into one of three categories:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea is the far more common type, and it occurs when the tissues around the mouth, nose, and throat relax so much that they pinch shut, blocking the airway and suspending breathing.
  • Central sleep apnea is a brain dysfunction that causes the brain’s signals to the lungs to go awry, stopping normal lung function.
  • Mixed sleep apnea is a rare affliction in which both conditions exist concurrently.

Regardless of the cause, sleep apnea’s long- and short-term effects can be incredibly damaging to your health.

What Are Some of the Dangers of Sleep Apnea?

Even one night of “sleep” while suffering from sleep apnea can lead to a host of complications the next day. Due to the constant interruptions to your normal sleep cycle, at the very least, you’ll be less rested the next day, leading to drowsiness, inattention, and all the potential dangers that can cause. Studies have indicated that severe apnea sufferers are 123% more likely to be involved in an automobile accident due to either falling asleep at the wheel or the delayed reaction times brought on by excessive sleepiness.

Additionally, you’re more likely to wake up with a dry mouth (due to open-mouth breathing overnight) and a headache (due to oxygen deprivation and increased carbon dioxide saturation from the interrupted breathing).

But those short-term effects are only the very tip of the iceberg when it comes to the dangers of sleep apnea. For individuals who suffer from untreated sleep apnea, other risks include:

Heart Damage

As your body goes through the sleep-apnea event-wake-sleep cycle, your blood pressure increases as your body tries to force more oxygen to the brain. Additionally, every apnea event causes a momentary distress signal in your brain, which causes the same sort of high-stress response as a scare or threat, raising blood pressure even higher.

This increased pressure causes strain on the cardiac blood vessels and on the heart muscle itself, which can ultimately cause damage to or even failure of the heart.


An arrhythmia is a condition in which the heart beats out of its normal rhythm or when the chambers of the heart are not beating in synch. Some of the most dangerous arrhythmias are atrial fibrillations (AFib), irregular and usually very rapid heartbeats in the upper chambers, or atria, of the heart. Sleep apnea can lead to a number of different arrhythmias, including AFib.

The danger of AFib increases in cases where the fibrillation allows blood to pool in the left atrium, where blood from the lungs first enters the heart. When that happens, the blood can clot, and clots can then pass through the left ventricle and to the brain, causing a dangerous or deadly stroke.

Sudden Cardiac Death

Some other types of apnea-induced arrhythmias are severe enough to cause the heart to stop, a life-threatening condition known as sudden cardiac arrest. If not detected and treated within minutes, sudden cardiac arrest is fatal, and due to the fact that apnea-induced arrest occurs when the victim is asleep, the fatality rate is incredibly high in these cases.

Man sleeping in bed wearing CPAP mask ,sleep apnea therapyHappy

How Can I Avoid the Effects of Sleep Apnea?

There are hundreds of potential causes for sleep apnea, some arising from things that can be controlled and others that are hereditary or otherwise uncontrollable. In short, sleep apnea treatments fall into one of two categories: specific treatments and lifestyle changes.

Specific treatments for sleep apnea include:

  • Nightly use of a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine during sleep to keep airways open
  • Nerve stimulators to keep the tongue from falling across the opening to the windpipe
  • Surgeries that help prevent airway collapse or obstruction

Lifestyle changes that can reduce the risk of sleep apnea include:

  • Weight loss: Even a 10% reduction in weight can significantly improve sleep apnea
  • New sleeping position: Back-sleepers are far more likely to suffer with apnea than side-sleepers
  • Nasal sprays or strips: These over-the-counter remedies can help reduce the effects of apnea by keeping nasal passages open. (Note: Nasal sprays containing oxymetazoline, such as Afrin, should only be used for 2-3 days at a time. Continued use can lead to more severe “rebound congestion” when use of the spray is discontinued.)
  • Medication changes: Reducing or stopping use of opioid painkillers may improve or resolve issues with central sleep apnea.

Suffering from Sleep Apnea? Talk to Athens Oral Surgery Today.

If sleep apnea is preventing you from getting enough rest, Dr. Tomlinson can carry out a complete exam and help you know your next steps. Schedule an appointment with our team by calling 706-549-5033.

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