Sleep Apnea: How Is It Related to Heart Disease and What Can I Do About It?

There has been a lot of information in the last few years about the connection between sleep apnea and heart disease. In this report, Dr. Lee Surkin, a cardiologist and sleep medicine specialist, explains the link between heart disease and sleep apnea.

Dr. Surkin says that physicians have learned a lot in the past decade or so about the link between sleep apnea and heart disease. There are close associations that include heart disease, heart failure, heart rhythm disturbances, high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes. Sleep apnea is not just associated with these problems; it may cause them.

Screening a patient for sleep apnea involves looking at the symptoms. The first symptom is snoring, a sign that there is a resistance in the airway to the flow of air. Snoring is not proof of sleep apnea, but it is suggestive. Another thing to consider is how someone feels when they wake up. People who feel they need more sleep and who are tired during the day may suffer from sleep apnea. Also, people who have headaches in the morning may have sleep apnea. Awakening with a dry mouth can be a symptom of sleep apnea.

Once someone has symptoms suggestive of sleep apnea, there are two diagnostic approaches. One is a home sleep apnea test that allows a potential sleep apnea patient to test for the problem at home. The testing is done for a period of one to three nights. The other approach, called in-center testing, requires a patient to spend a night in an accredited sleep laboratory to determine if sleep apnea is present.

Once sleep apnea is diagnosed, there are several treatment options. The most common one is the use of a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) device. The procedure involves breathing room air under enough pressure to keep the airway open. Another treatment approach is oral appliance therapy. This involves having a dental sleep physician take a mold of a patient’s teeth and create an oral appliance that goes into the patient’s mouth at bedtime. The appliance moves the lower jaw forward slightly to keep the airway open.

Another approach is the use of a product called Provent that works with the nostrils to splint the airway open. A very recently approved treatment is a hypoglossal nerve stimulation device. By stimulating the nerve that controls the tongue, the device causes the tongue to avoid dropping back to block the airway. Another thing sleep apnea patients should probably do is lose weight. Yet another approach involves surgery to enlarge the airway.

Dr. Lee Surkin, MD, FACC, FCCP, FASNC is a cardiologist in Greenville, North Carolina and is affiliated with multiple hospitals in the area, including Martin General Hospital and Vidant Medical Center. He received his medical degree from Drexel University College of Medicine and has been in practice for more than 20 years. He is board certified in Cardiology, Nuclear Cardiology and Sleep Medicine. He is the founder of the American Academy of Cardiovascular Sleep Medicine. The Health and Wellness Network is a featured network of Sequence Media Group.