Women with Sleep Apnea: Why It Can Be Hard to Receive a Diagnosis
Data has shown that men are twice as likely as women to have obstructive sleep apnea – and men who are overweight have an even greater risk of developing it. That said, even those who don’t fit the mold of a typical sleep apnea patient can still suffer from this sleep disorder and ultimately benefit from CPAP therapy. But unfortunately, it may be more difficult for these individuals to receive a proper diagnosis.
One woman’s struggle for a sleep apnea diagnosis
Just last week, journalist Temma Ehrenfeld wrote an article for Yahoo! Health detailing her personal experience with sleep apnea. Ehrenfeld recalls feeling constant fatigue and specifically asking her doctors if she may have been suffering from sleep apnea, only to have this question dismissed since she didn’t look like the stereotypical sleep apnea patient and she wasn’t aware of any loud snoring.
“You’re not that heavy. You don’t have an especially fat throat. Some people just aren’t good in the morning,” one doctor reportedly told her.
Finally, Ehrenfeld took matters into her own hands and decided to try out her boyfriend’s CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine to see if it would make a difference. Sure enough, the next morning she awoke feeling significantly better.
Knowing that she had to find out for certain if she truly was suffering from sleep apnea, Ehrenfeld arranged to take a sleep study, which showed that she did indeed have mild sleep apnea. The doctor advised her to lose some weight and begin regular CPAP therapy.
Women with sleep apnea: Understanding the facts
According to the National Sleep Foundation, an estimated 25% of the U.S. adult population suffers from sleep apnea, and about 13% of these individuals remain undiagnosed.
For her Yahoo! Finance piece, Ehrenfeld interviewed Grace Pien, a sleep specialist at the Maryland-based Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. Pien told her that women are more likely to have undiagnosed sleep apnea than men – and revealed that it’s actually quite common for people to suffer from this disorder even if they don’t exhibit the more easily identifiable risk factors and symptoms such as obesity and snoring.
In fact, women with sleep apnea tend to experience different symptoms than men altogether. Dr. Nancy Collop, director of the Emory Sleep Center in Georgia, told the National Sleep Foundation that women are more likely than men to suffer insomnia, disrupted sleep, chronic fatigue and depression as a result of sleep apnea. “Since these aren’t the classic symptoms of sleep apnea – these symptoms are often put off to being something else,” explains Dr. Collop. Anemia, depression, fibromyalgia, insomnia and menopausal changes are just a few of the incorrect diagnoses women who have sleep apnea often receive.
Treating sleep apnea
CPAP therapy is considered the gold-standard treatment for sleep apnea. When Ehrenfeld finally began using a CPAP machine on a nightly basis, she noticed a difference almost immediately. Her memory improved, she woke up feeling more energized in the morning and she even received comments from people in her life proclaiming that she appeared happier and better rested.
Hopefully, Ehrenfeld’s story about her personal experience with sleep apnea will encourage other women in similar situations to talk to their doctors about this disorder. According to Dr. Collop, “difficulty maintaining sleep, un-refreshing sleep, chronic fatigue, lack of energy, snoring, frequent nighttime urination, awakening gasping, daytime sleepiness, awakening with a headache or edema (swelling) of the feet” are all symptoms that should prompt women to seek clinical evaluation.