A heart doctor recently asked one of his patients if he was using the sleep apnea machine each night.
The patient’s response:
“What does it matter to you if I use my CPAP?”
The doctor realized that while awareness about sleep apnea has increased significantly, some of the problems and effects it has on the body are still a mystery. Thus, it is important for patients to understand not only what sleep apnea is and how a sleep apnea machine helps, but also the long term effects untreated sleep apnea can have on the heart.
First, Understand Sleep
Most people think of sleep as simply laying down, getting comfortable and resting for 7 to 10 hours. However, it is slightly more complicated than that. During a restful sleep the human brain will move in and out of different areas of consciousness. The deepest stage is known as REM and it is also the stage where people get the most rest. REM sleep is the type of sleep that produces dreams. Since dreams can take on quite a bit of action, the body disconnects the muscles from the brain. This prevents people from trying to run out of the bed when they are running in their dream.
That obviously is a good thing. However, there are many muscles in the neck which also relax. When these muscles relax the weight of the typical person’s chin will press downward towards the airway. For people with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), this is where complications with breathing begins.
Problems from Lack of Breathing
People with OSA have difficulty breathing during sleep. The combination of the chin pushing down, along with the soft palette and tongue relaxing, all work to close the person’s airway. The affected person will struggle with this blockage and gasp to take a breath. It will also lead to a reduction of oxygen levels in the lungs. Due to the breathing stoppage, the body’s reaction will be to rouse itself out of REM sleep in order to engage the muscles and start to breathe again. This process can happen many times during the course of an hour. However, the person most likely does not remember any of the actions but will feel exhausted, irritable and lack focus throughout the day. Essentially, what they received was only a fraction of the amount of sleep necessary to function normally during the day.
Problems with the Heart
So, what does all of this have to do with the health of the heart? As with anything in the body, it is more of a chain reaction.
1.A blocked airway during the night reduces oxygen levels in the blood. This causes vessels inside the lungs to constrict.
2.Over the course of time the constrictions builds scars on the vessels.
3.The amount of pressure needed to force blood into the lungs will increase. This will force the right ventricle of the heart to swell and then become weaker.
4.The patient can develop high blood pressure due to problems with the ventricle.
5.In some cases, the strain on the right ventricle can cause a disturbance in the heart rhythm.
For people with OSA, a sleep apnea machine can help reduce these problems. The machine keeps the user’s oxygen at appropriate levels and allows the heart and lung to do their job appropriately.