What is obstructive sleep apnea?

We spend about a third of our lives sleeping, allowing our bodies and minds to recharge. However, for those who experience a lack of sleep due to obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), the impacts on physical and mental health can be significant.

OSA is a serious condition that causes you to stop breathing several times throughout the night, resulting in poor sleep quality. Left untreated, OSA can increase your risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Untreated OSA has also been linked to a higher risk of mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, severe psychological distress, and even suicidal thoughts.

Although OSA is one of the most common sleep disorders in the United States, misconceptions and fallacies are widespread. Below we debunk six of the most common OSA myths.

Six common obstructive sleep apnea myths debunked

Myth: OSA is just snoring.

Man clutching chest in pain

Fact: Snoring can be a symptom of OSA, but there’s a big difference between the two. People with OSA can stop breathing as many as 400 times throughout the night. These pauses last at least 10 seconds and are usually followed by a snort when you start breathing again. These breaks in sleep can take a toll on your body and mind, leaving you tired during the day, and putting you at risk for accidents and injuries, heart attacks and strokes, and mental illness. OSA is also associated with headaches, trouble concentrating, memory problems, and poor decision-making.

Myth: Only men experience OSA.

Woman with headache in bed

Fact: Women tend to have less severe OSA than males, and often go undiagnosed, underdiagnosed, or misdiagnosed; however, the consequences of the disease are the same. Women are less likely to bring up their snoring with their doctor and may report symptoms, such as insomnia, morning headaches, mood disturbances, lack of energy, and sleepiness instead. These symptoms can signal any number of issues, leading to a delay in diagnosis. After menopause, the rates of OSA in women start to become closer to that of men.

Myth: I feel fine. I don’t need to get my snoring checked out.

Woman asleep on sofa

Fact: Before you rule out OSA—or decide not to consult with your doctor—consider how you really feel during the day. Having trouble concentrating, showing signs of depression, feeling cranky with loved ones, and nodding off during meetings, while watching TV or in the car can all be signs of OSA. Talk to your doctor about your symptoms and take steps to start feeling better during the day and at night.

Myth: My weight is fine, so I don’t have OSA.

Person standing on scale

Fact: Although obesity is a strong risk factor for developing OSA, people who are considered normal weight or only slightly overweight can have it too. Facial and neck anatomy, such as large tonsils, a small jaw, a large overbite, a recessed chin, or a large neck, can put you at higher risk.

Myth: Children don’t experience OSA.

Boy playing with felt pens

Fact: All age groups can be affected by OSA. In fact, it is estimated that OSA affects two to three percent of children and up to 10–20% of children who habitually snore. Children often present with behavioral issues, such as hyperactivity and inattentiveness, rather than sleepiness as in adults. Pediatric OSA is treatable. If your child snores, bring it to the attention of their pediatrician. If the problem is the result of enlarged tonsils or adenoids, a simple surgery to remove them may be a cure. In some cases, your child may need to wear a specialized medical device while they sleep.

Myth: Surgery is the surest way to fix OSA.

Man wearing CPAP mask

Fact: For some individuals, especially children, removing enlarged tonsils or adenoids that block their airway may cure OSA. Some adults can even improve their symptoms with surgery to shrink or stiffen floppy tissues. But surgery is not a good choice for everyone. For some, lifestyle changes, such as losing weight, changing your sleep position, and avoiding alcohol and cigarettes may reduce or eliminate OSA severity and symptoms. For others, positive airway pressure devices that blow or push air to keep your airway open and oral appliances that physically open your airway may help. Always discuss the pros and cons of surgery with your doctor before you make a final decision.

Want to learn more about obstructive sleep apnea?

Find the recording of our webinar, “Obstructive Sleep Apnea: Impacts, Diagnosis, and Treatment,” where board-certified psychiatrist, Dr. Jamie Hanna, medical director, Magellan Healthcare, and I discuss the mental and physical health impacts of OSA, and OSA diagnosis and treatment here.