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Sleep apnea (SA) is a fairly common, yet serious condition that results in daytime fatigue and can lead to serious health problems like heart disease, strokes, diabetes, weight gain, and accidents at home or on the job caused by extreme exhaustion. It affects nearly 20 million Americans and is most common in those between the ages of 40 and 50. Risk factors increase for those who are overweight, African-American, or have a first- or second-generation family member with the condition.

As burdensome as sleep apnea can be for those who have it, it can take a major toll on the family members of people suffering from SA as well. Additionally, family members frequently are the key to diagnosing the condition in patients, more so than the patients themselves. Snoring is the main symptom of SA, which can cause a patient to stop breathing for up to 30 seconds. As a result, spouses are often the first to notice symptoms leading up to a diagnosis.

While sleep apnea can be severe and difficult to cure completely, there are many options for treating the symptoms and taking control of the condition. Family members can play a vital role in treatment by encouraging patients to stop destructive behaviors that contribute to SA. For instance, losing weight and quitting smoking can both shrink the size of tissues at the back of the airway that cause it to become blocked. Alcohol and sleeping pills can worsen symptoms of SA also by relaxing the tissues at the back of the throat, making it easier for the airway to become blocked.

Changing one’s sleeping position is another lifestyle change to treat sleep apnea. The worst sleeping position for those with sleep apnea is laying flat on their backs. This puts pressure on the throat tissues, pulling them downwards and again causing the airway to become blocked. Using an extra pillow or foam wedge, as well as laying on one’s side, can prevent the airway from becoming blocked.

If these changes do not produce the desired results, another option is to have your doctor insert a an oxygen device that delivers continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). While the device may take some time to adjust to, it is known as a very effective way to treat moderate to severe sleep apnea.

As a final resort, patients can have surgery to remove excess tissue from the throat, effectively curing the condition. However, because surgery can result in unwanted side effects, most doctors will recommend that those with SA try all of the other treatments first and only resort to surgery as a last resort.

Remember that your family members can be the key to diagnosing sleep apnea, so if they’re concerned that your snoring may be something more than just a minor irritant, listen up and consult your doctor. A family member just may save your life.