Sleep apnea in women: what you need to know and how to treat it

Sleep apnea in women: what you need to know and how to treat it
By: Allison Tunstall Last Updated: July 24, 2020

One of the most prevalent misconceptions about sleep apnea is that the common sleep disorder only occurs in men, a misconception that can lead to many women putting off getting the care they need to treat the condition. So, we sat down with Dr. Michael Uzelac, Sleep Dentist at Sleep Airway Solutions, to talk about how sleep apnea affects women every day and what they need to know about the disorder in order to get a better night’s sleep.

Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when there is an obstruction in the throat caused by collapsed muscles. Dr. Uzelac, who treats OSA at his practice, explained that a number of factors contribute to sleep apnea, including weight, neck circumference, a narrow airway, and age, which leads to weakening muscle tone.

While men may experience sleep apnea more frequently, women are not immune to the disorder. However, symptoms may appear in women at later points in their lives.

“Women have estrogen, which seems to help keep vessels open,” Dr. Uzelac said. “However, after women lose their estrogen production, meaning after they go through menopause, the loss of hormones makes the risk of sleep apnea much more common.”

Symptoms in women differ from men as well. While the more well-known symptoms of sleep apnea include snoring, frequent episodes where you stop breathing, and dry mouth, the most common sign of sleep apnea in women is poor sleep quality which leads to daytime sleepiness, difficulty concentrating and headaches.

Although obstructive sleep apnea is more common in post-menopausal women,  younger women can have it as well.  So, if you are experiencing any of these symptoms, regardless of age, you should seek treatment.

One of the measurements of obstructive sleep apnea is the Apnea-Hypopnea Index, or AHI.  Dr. Uzelac explained, “The AHI is an indicator of how many times you stop breathing per hour.  It is normal for people to stop breathing while they sleep no more than 5 times an hour.  5 to 15 times an hour indicates mild sleep apnea, 15 to 30 is moderate,  and over 30 is severe.”

“Men seem to experience more severe sleep apnea than women do,” Dr. Uzelac continued. “But what’s interesting is that women seem to be more affected by an AHI that is considered normal. We see patients who maybe have 4 apneas an hour, which is a normal number to have, but they sleep very poorly and feel those effects very stongly.”

Snoring, whether persistent or infrequent, no dreaming, and frequent urinating at night are other symptoms of sleep apnea that Dr. Uzelac urges women to look out for. While the standard of sleep apnea treatment has been a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine, Dr. Uzelac sees a growing number of patients who want to avoid using a CPAP machine and are looking for other effective treatments.

“CPAP machines are the gold-standard treatment for sleep apnea. However, they’re loud and uncomfortable,” he said. “We see more and more patients who want to avoid them as a treatment option. Unless you are experiencing severe sleep apnea, you can likely be treated without a CPAP machine.”

That’s where Dr. Uzelac and his team at Sleep Airway Solutions come in.

“How our Oral Appliance Therapy works is we construct a custom, adjustable  appliance, much like a mouth guard, in order to move your jaw forward and keep it in that position,” Dr. Uzelac said. The appliance supports the jaw so that the airway is kept open, preventing any muscles from collapsing. Not only is it easier to use than a CPAP machine, it is also less invasive and comfortable to wear. Many patients see a drastic change in their sleep habits after starting Oral Appliance Therapy.

“Sleeping 8 hours a day is one of the most important things we can do for ourselves,” Dr. Uzelac said. “If you’re having trouble sleeping, it will begin to affect your life negatively. So it’s vital that we learn the symptoms of sleep apnea and take the necessary steps to get you a good night’s sleep.”

For more information about sleep apnea and Sleep Airway Solutions’ Oral Appliance Therapy, please visit their website at https://www.sleepairwaysolutions.com.