Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) is a health condition that involves apneas or hypopneas. Having an apnea means you stop breathing for a short period of time while you’re sleeping, while a hypopnea means your breathing is slow or shallow. These episodes can happen many times throughout the night. OSA also includes symptoms such as daytime sleepiness.
There is a spectrum of Sleep Apnea that includes mild, moderate and severe. If you have moderate to severe OSA, a lot of information and treatment options are available to you. However, mild Sleep Apnea is set apart and not focused on as much even though this type of OSA can still cause problems in your life. It’s possible to find out if you have this problem, and there are things you can do about it.
What Is Considered Mild Sleep Apnea?
The different types of Sleep Apnea are determined by the Apnea-Hypopnea Index (AHI), which is how many apneas or hypopneas you experience each hour during a sleep study. No or minimal Sleep Apnea has fewer than five events per hour. A mild Sleep Apnea diagnosis would come with more than five but fewer than 15 events per hour. Then, moderate Sleep Apnea is identified by more than 15 but fewer than 30, and severe is more than 30.
Oxygen desaturation is also considered when making a diagnosis. This refers to your blood oxygen levels going down. The normal level should be around 96 to 97 percent. When the level goes below the normal range down to 90 percent, it’s generally considered mild. Moderate desaturation goes down to 80 to 89 percent, and the severe level dips to under 80 percent.
What Are the Symptoms of Mild Sleep Apnea?
The mild form of OSA still causes symptoms that can interfere with your life. These mild OSA symptoms include having apnea or hypopnea events, and you snore or gasp while sleeping. You will generally experience undesired sleepiness or falling asleep when you’re engaging in a relaxing activity such as watching TV. Nonetheless, with mild Sleep Apnea, the symptoms are not too disruptive to your life.
Also, mild Sleep Apnea creates AHI readings ranging from more than five to fewer than 15 events per hour, and it shows oxygen desaturation levels of 90 percent to less than 96 percent. You can also experience a variety of symptoms from a lack of sleep.
What Causes Mild Sleep Apnea?
Sleep Apnea can have many different causes or contributing factors, which vary on a case by case basis. The causes include:
- Being overweight or obese
- Large tonsils or adenoids
- Premature birth
- Lying on the back in a supine position during sleep
- Allergic rhinitis
- Neuromuscular disorders
- Endocrine disorder
- Genetic syndromes
- Heart failure
- Kidney failure
Also, there are many risk factors for Sleep Apnea. These include:
- Race and ethnicity
- Genetics and family history
It’s possible to change lifestyle and environmental risk factors, but not the other ones.
How to Treat Mild Sleep Apnea
Positive airway pressure devices, such as CPAP devices, are generally used for moderate to severe cases of Sleep Apnea. These solutions would not necessarily be used as the first line of defense for a mild case.
Mild Sleep Apnea treatment might include:
- Nasal Decongestants: This method could help Sleep Apnea that is being caused by allergic rhinitis.
- Oral Appliances: These tools work well as a first line treatment for mild cases of Sleep Apnea. You would wear this kind of appliance, which is similar to a sports or orthodontic mouth appliance, in your mouth while you sleep. The device would temporarily move your jaw slightly to minimize airway collapse.
- Surgery: This solution could improve airflow through the nose to help breathing.
- Positional Therapy: This technique helps you if your Sleep Apnea is dependent on sleeping on your back in a supine position. This therapy helps you stay on your sides while sleeping, and can include using tools that prevent rolling onto your back.
- Weight Loss: This lifestyle change may help if you’re included in the majority of people with OSA who are overweight or obese.
- Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP): While you might try other treatment methods first, CPAP machines are also used for mild Sleep Apnea. With CPAP, AHI improvements may be made.
Does Mild Sleep Apnea Need to Be Treated?
Two articles debated this question in the same issue of the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.
One article argued that CPAP treatment, which is a common treatment for Sleep Apnea, is not needed for mild OSA and does not significantly benefit symptoms associated with it. Nonetheless, the article is not against all forms of treatment but instead noted that medical interventions should be used first before turning to CPAP. Depending on factors contributing to the mild OSA, the article explained that treatments could include interventions such as weight loss, nasal corticosteroids for allergic rhinitis or positional therapy for supine OSA.
The other article argued that mild Sleep Apnea should be treated. The reasoning for treating mild OSA was that it has symptoms, it can contribute to other health conditions and it can be treated to improve outcomes.
It’s smart to look into available treatments and talk to a doctor. Treatment may be beneficial and provide help with mild Sleep Apnea symptoms.
Is Mild Sleep Apnea Dangerous?
Even less severe forms of Sleep Apnea can pose risks to your health. A study in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine compared minimally symptomatic OSA to a control group and found that people with minimally symptomatic Sleep Apnea had increased arterial stiffness and decreased endothelial function.
Arterial stiffness refers to the walls of the arteries becoming stiff and thickened, while endothelial function has to do with the endothelium, a membrane lining the heart and blood vessels. Both are part of the cardiovascular system, and the study findings suggest an increased risk to heart health. Arterial stiffness reduced endothelial function and an increase of cardiovascular risk are also characteristics of moderate to severe Sleep Apnea.
While mild Sleep Apnea may not be as disruptive to your life as moderate to severe OSA, it is still a problem to your health and well-being. It comes with symptoms and can pose health risks. It’s worth getting checked to see if you have this problem and to look into treatments that could improve your symptoms and help you get better sleep.
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David Repasky has been using CPAP treatment since 2017 and has first-hand experience with what it’s like to live with Sleep Apnea. He brings the patient’s perspective to the CPAP.com blog and has received formal training in CPAP machines, masks, and equipment.