Imagine what it would be like if you stopped breathing multiple times during the day. You wouldn’t think twice about calling a doctor. But people with sleep apnea stop breathing many times every night, and they may not even know it.
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Sleep apnea is a potentially serious sleep disorder that occurs when breathing is interrupted during sleep. People with untreated sleep apnea can stop breathing up to hundreds of times each night while sleeping.
“Sleep apnea may be more common than you think because it often goes undiagnosed,” says sleep disorder specialist Silvia Neme-Mercante, MD. “It affects at least 9 percent of women and 24 percent of men. It’s estimated that around 80 percent of patients with obstructive sleep apnea, which is the most common form of sleep apnea, are undiagnosed.”
Screening for sleep apnea before surgery
Sleep apnea is a special concern for people who are about to have surgery. That’s why it’s important for all surgical patients to be pre-screened for sleep apnea.
“Patients with sleep apnea who are undergoing any type of surgery are at an increased risk for developing respiratory and cardiovascular complications in the period following the surgery,” says Dr. Neme-Mercante.
Complications can include irregular heart rhythms, oxygen deficiency, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, heart attack and even death.
Screening patients prior to surgery is be very simple. Patients fill out a sleep apnea questionnaire, which helps physicians determine who is at high risk for sleep apnea. To avoid potentially dangerous complications after surgery, it’s important that you answer the questions honestly.
Depending on your responses, you may or may not also need to do a sleep study. “Sleep apnea is diagnosed based on sleep history and an overnight sleep study test called a polysomnogram,” Dr. Neme-Mercante says. “The test could be performed in a sleep laboratory under the supervision of a trained technologist, or in some cases it can be done at home.”
Preparing for surgery if you have sleep apnea
If you are diagnosed with sleep apnea, there are some things you can do to prepare for your surgery that will decrease your risk for post-surgical complications.
“Once the diagnosis of sleep apnea is made, we encourage patients to start therapy prior to surgery,” says Dr. Neme-Mercante. “There are different treatment options available, which your doctor will discuss with you, but positive airway pressure (PAP) is still considered the gold standard.”
With continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), you will wear a mask over your nose and/or mouth while sleeping. An air blower will force air through your airway, which will prevent it from closing during sleep.
During and after surgery
Medical staff will closely monitor your vital signs both during and after surgery. You will continue to receive PAP once your surgery is completed and you are in the recovery area.
Talk to your doctor
Whether or not you’re having surgery, sleep apnea can be dangerous if it’s not diagnosed and treated. Since it is so common and so frequently undiagnosed, you’ll want to be on the lookout for possible symptoms.
The most common symptoms of sleep apnea include choking or gasping during sleep, daytime sleepiness and loud, disruptive snoring.
“Beyond sleep disruptions and other bedtime symptoms, patients may also complain of headaches, depression, memory problems, trouble concentrating or sexual dysfunction,” Dr. Neme-Mercante says. “If you experience any of these symptoms, you should share them with your family doctor.”