We most often think of sleep apnea as something men develop. While it’s generally true that most sleep apnea sufferers are men, there are some times when women are at an increased risk for sleep apnea. That includes after menopause and during pregnancy.
During pregnancy in particular, women are not only at increased risk for sleep apnea, but sleep apnea carries several significant risks that should be considered.
To help account for these increased risks, some researchers have recommended that we designate a condition called “gestational sleep apnea” to make it more likely that women will be tested for sleep apnea and receive proper treatment during pregnancy.
Potential Pregnancy Risks Related to Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea during pregnancy is a serious risk for mother and baby. Women with sleep apnea during pregnancy are five times more likely to die from complications at the hospital shortly before or after birth. This is largely due to anesthesia complications that are commonly associated with sleep apnea.
Fetuses are affected by oxygen shortages experienced by their mother. One study showed that up to 92% of fetuses in women with sleep apnea experience significant oxygen shortages during development. And they’re nearly 10 times more likely to develop normoblastemia, a condition where the fetus releases immature red blood cells to try to account for oxygen shortages. Other pregnancy conditions like gestational hypertension and diabetes.
Challenges for Diagnosing and Treating Sleep Apnea in Pregnancy
But diagnosis of pregnant women with sleep apnea is already lagging behind. Partly that’s because sleep apnea diagnosis overall isn’t as accomplished as we would like, with 80% of sufferers going undiagnosed.
Women who were healthy before pregnancy might not think to ask their doctor about sleep apnea. They might notice the primary symptoms– snoring and daytime sleepiness–and just think that they are normal, expected, and harmless consequences of pregnancy.
If women remain undiagnosed, they will not get the treatment they need to avoid additional complications.
The Difference a Designation Can Make
Researchers described several ways that a designation of gestational sleep apnea could help.
Awareness is probably the biggest piece of the puzzle. We already know that awareness is a major barrier to diagnosis, among doctors, women, and their partners.
Understanding that their partner’s snoring is serious will encourage men to report it to their partner and their family doctor or obstetrician. Doctors who are aware of the designation are more likely to ask about it.
A designation will also help define specific criteria so that more reliable diagnosis can be made. It will also help standardize treatment to help ensure women get the most effective treatment for their sleep apnea.
Perhaps most importantly, a designation can lead to more research on the condition. This will help us learn more about the potential consequences of the condition and how best to approach treatment.