Photo: Memory Form Sleeping Wedge. Source: Savor Sleep.
As everyone with sleep apnea knows, it slowly sucks the life out of you from a persistent state of fatigue, the inability to enjoy a recuperative night of sleep, the inability to properly oxygenate the body, and the subsequent morning headaches after a night of snoring and struggling to breathe. The condition itself is characterized by the collapsing of the person’s airway during sleep, and the subsequent struggle to catch their breath, causing very loud bouts of snoring and choking throughout the entire nap or sleep session.
Sleep apnea is caused by the collapsing of the person’s airway during sleep, which is the event that triggers all other symptoms. The collapse is caused by a number of factors, of which two stand out among the rest: obesity and genetics. The latter revolves around the shape and size of the person’s airway; if it is too narrow, the airway is prone to collapsing and impeding breathing.
Meanwhile, the former may also contribute towards the development of the condition since excess fat gathered in the person’s neck may cause additional pressure in their airway while they sleep, potentially causing sleep apnea. Similarly, when it comes to children, the most common cause of sleep apnea usually resides in enlarged or inflamed tonsils and adenoids, which can expand in size and completely block the airways. Consequently, the child snores very loudly at night and wakes up during the day as if they hadn’t been able to sleep at all.
Fortunately, when it comes to children, addressing tonsil-and-adenoid-related sleep apnea is quite simple. It is done by surgically extracting said structures, removing the obstructions from the airway, and returning their ability to breathe properly at night. However, when it comes to teens or adults that suffer from the disease, coping is somewhat more complicated.
A common long-term solution that can grant respite from the condition revolves around the use of the continuous positive airway pressure mask (CPAP), which consists of a mask that the person wears around the mouth and nose at night, and that pumps oxygen directly through the airway.
The increased airway pressure helps to clear it of blockages, preventing the symptoms from surfacing and granting the patient a peaceful sleep as long as the method is used properly. The CPAP features masks of different styles, shapes, and sizes in order to appeal to the widest demographic possible; the idea is that it fits comfortably, and without causing any disturbances for the person, but it usually takes several weeks to get used to it. Nevertheless, it is the most common method of addressing sleep apnea in adults today, while a permanent solution is still being researched.
However, despite the success of the CPAP in preventing or reducing obstructive sleep apnea symptoms, there are other tools that can be used to improve the quality of life of those who struggle with the disease on a daily (or nightly) basis.
The Sleeping Wedge
The tool is called a wedge pillow and consists of a firm foam cushion shaped, as its name implies, in the form of a wedge, with a tapered incline. This cushion is placed on top of the mattress, just below the standard pillow, and is used to elevate the person’s head while they sleep, contributing towards keeping the airway clear at night.
This tool is important because of the pressure caused by the abdomen neck can shift when lying in the supine position. This shift in weight is one of the most common culprits of sleep apnea, and can also cause acid from the stomach to spill towards the esophagus, causing morning heartburn
The change in sleeping angle created by the wedge pillow can help keep the head and neck at a downward angle in relation to the body, preventing the weight of the abdomen from shifting upwards, and causing sleep apnea symptoms. If a sleep wedge pillow is not present, other common solutions for this problem might be using bricks or phone books under the bedposts in order to create a downwards angle, or through the purchase of a hospital bed that is able to raise the head at specific angles.
However, these solutions are either too rudimentary or expensive for the average citizen. Wedge pillows, however, are worth around $50. While expensive for a pillow, it is much more affordable than the alternative of being plagued with sleep apnea and heartburn.
Some facts about sleep apnea
Those who suffer from sleep apnea may experience a large number of episodes in every sleep session — sometimes up to 30—and most of which last for up to 30 seconds during which the person partially or completely stops breathing, only to catch their breath with a large snore, or waking up outright. The problem with these moments, besides the fact that sleep is interrupted and rest quality is diminished, is that they are usually too brief to register in memory, which means that the person is unaware that they are suffering from sleep apnea.
Consequently, most individuals that suffer from the disease only experience the secondary symptoms, in the form of constant fatigue during the day, heavy sleepiness after waking up and beginning the daily routine, and psychological symptoms such as irritability, anxiety, and even depression. When affecting children, the psychological symptoms are usually more noticeable and can seriously affect them in social situations and school.
The problem with sleep apnea lies mostly in its difficulty to establish a reliable diagnosis since the person rarely notices they are snoring or struggling to breathe at night. This complication is further compounded if the patient lives alone, and has no one nearby to pick up their loud snoring.
The medical studies that are required in order to make an accurate sleep apnea diagnosis are commonly unavailable to the general populace, since they are performed in sleep centers or clinics, and are usually very expensive. Fortunately, there is an increasing trend in home diagnosis through home respiratory polygraphy, which is a method used to diagnose obstructive sleep apnea with as much credibility as the tests performed in expensive sleep centers, from the comfort of the person’s home, and for less than half the price.