Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder that occurs when a person’s breathing is interrupted during sleep. People with untreated sleep apnea stop breathing repeatedly during their sleep, sometimes hundreds of times. This means the brain — and the rest of the body — may not get enough oxygen. These episodes can occur up to 100 times in one hour. Most people don’t completely wake up when this occurs, but will feel exhausted in the morning and tired throughout the day. Sleep apnea is a very dangerous disease, because if left untreated it gets progressively worse and has serious health consequences. In some cases, sleep apnea can cause impotence or high blood pressure. In the worst cases, it can lead to stroke, heart attack and death.
There are two types of sleep apnea, the first and more common is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). It is caused by the airway being blocked, usually when the soft tissue at the back of the throat collapses during sleep. The second kind is central sleep apnea. Unlike OSA, the airway is not blocked, but the brain fails to signal the muscles to breathe due to instability in the respiratory control center.
Sleep apnea can affect anyone at any age, male or female, even children. Sometimes alcohol, sleeping pills, or heart medications can trigger apnea. It can even be inherited. Other causes include obesity, large tonsils and adenoids.
The biggest risk factors for sleep apnea include:
- Being male
- Being overweight
- Being over age 40
- Having a large neck size (17 inches or greater in men and 16 inches or greater in women)
- Having large tonsils, a large tongue, or a small jaw bone
- Having a family history of sleep apnea
- Gastroesophageal reflux, or GERD
- Nasal obstruction due to a deviated septum, allergies, or sinus problems
If left untreated, sleep apnea can result in a growing number of health problems, including high blood pressure, stroke, heart failure, irregular heart beats, and heart attacks. When breathing stops during apnea episodes, carbon dioxide levels in the blood increase and oxygen levels drop. This sets off a chain of physical and chemical events. Nitric oxide causes blood vessels to remain elastic, but sleep apnea causes decreased levels of nitric oxide and thus less elasticity in blood vessel walls.
One recent study showed that the greater the number of nightly apnea episodes a person had, the more likely they were to develop hypertension. Blood pressure fluctuates widely and rapidly in response to episodes of apnea and hypopnea. This is an autonomic nervous system response that controls involuntary muscle activity such as the heart. The transient constriction of blood vessels controlling the heart can lead to sustained hypertension (high blood pressure) and eventual heart damage. The National Commission on Sleep Disorders Research estimates that sleep apnea results in 38,000 cardiovascular deaths each year.
The list of potential health problems caused by sleep apnea also include diabetes, depression, and worsening of ADHD. Studies in older people with sleep apnea and excessive daytime sleepiness demonstrate lower test scores for cognitive function. In one study 32% of adult apnea patients also had suffered from depression. Studies of children and adolescents with sleep apnea reported academic underachievement, short attention span, and hyperactivity, all thought to be a result of sleepiness. In addition, untreated sleep apnea may be responsible for poor performance in everyday activities, such as at work and school, and more distressingly, motor vehicle crashes and occupational accidents due to excessive daytime sleepiness.
So that’s the bad news about sleep apnea. And rather a lot of it. But here’s the good news! Acupuncture is extraordinarily helpful in treating sleep apnea! Here’s how it works…
A recent study showed that acupuncture as a treatment for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) has immediate effects in reducing nocturnal respiratory events, sleep disruptions, and desaturations (low oxygen levels in the blood). The researchers hypothesized that this improvement is due to acupuncture’s effects on serotonergic pathways and also acupuncture’s anti-inflammatory effects. Acupuncture works by stimulating the muscles of the upper respiratory airways, which usually collapse during episodes of sleep apnea. The researchers note that the acupuncture points of the neck are of specific interest because they stimulate the genioglossus muscle — stimulation of this lingual muscle affects airflow dynamics and may be a key reason as to why acupuncture is effective for improving the symptoms of patients with sleep apnea. Clinical studies have also shown that acupuncture helps release extra neurotransmitters into the central nervous system, including serotonin which regulates sleep patterns.
Before treating a patient who suffers from sleep apnea with acupuncture, we will learn as much as possible about your medical history and lifestyle and what is causing the blockages of energy within your body. Information provided will allow us to identify the likely points that require treatment. We treat the whole person, safely, effectively and painlessly, and acupuncture can relieve the symptoms and underlying problems that create sleep apnea.
That’s something to breathe easy about!
To learn more, please visit us at www.ctacupuncture.com, and check us out on Facebook!
Author: Andrée Lambertson
Immediate effect of acupuncture on the sleep pattern of patients with obstructive sleep apnoea, Anaflávia O Freire, Gisele C M Sugai, Sônia Maria Togeiro, Luiz Eugênio Mello, Sérgio Tufik; Acupunct Med 2010; 28:115-119.
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