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The Effects of Obesity on the Throat – Sleep Apnea

Apnea involves the slowing or pausing of breathing during sleep. This is most often caused by obstructive sleep apnea, a common comorbidity of obesity. Typically, a patient will not know that they have sleep apnea as consequences (such as tiredness) are generalized and they are not conscious of their symptoms as they sleep. However, those who suffer from sleep apnea will often get complaints from their significant other about loud snoring. Pauses in breathing are also very noticeable.

Because sleep apnea is not apparent when patients are awake, it is an underdiagnosed disorder.  Indeed, the only surefire way to diagnose sleep apnea is by performing a sleep study in which the patient spends one or more nights at a sleep center during which time they undergo diagnostic testing.

How Obesity Affects Sleep Apnea

In cases of obstructive sleep apnea, the most common cause of the disorder is excess weight and obesity. When the patient sleeps lying down, their airway can narrow or even collapse at various points throughout night. This is due to the pressure of excess fat in the back of the throat.

Consequences of Sleep Apnea

At best, sleep apnea involves loud snoring, but at worst it can contribute to significant medical issues such as high blood pressure, diabetes and cardiovascular disease including heart attack and stroke. Sleep apnea can also cause irregular heartbeat or arrhythmia.

Beyond the medical consequences of sleep apnea, there are the risks associated with daily functioning on poor sleep. Sleep apnea causes drowsiness and tiredness due to poor sleeping habits. As a result, patients may increase their risk for accidents while driving or operating machinery, for example, because they have not received sufficient uninterrupted sleep.

Loved ones and significant others are also heavily affected by sleep apnea. Often spouses will sleep in separate rooms because of the snoring and relationships can even begin to deteriorate as a consequence.

Treatments for Sleep Apnea

Many patients suffering from obesity and sleep apnea will have come across a device known as a CPAP or Continuous Positive Airway Pressure Machine. The CPAP involves a mask that covers the patient’s nose and mouth. A tube connects the mask which to a motor that blows air into the mouth. However, while many patients will benefit from a CPAP machine, they are well-known to be uncomfortable and often come with relatively mild, but bothersome, side effects.

If the patients and their medical team confirm that the sleep apnea is most likely caused by obesity, losing weight is the best and most effective treatment option. Patients will have to evaluate the benefits, safety profile and side effects of the many weight loss options available to them including weight loss surgery.

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