Sleep apnea is a common disorder that often goes undiagnosed. It is characterized by repeated pauses in breathing or shallow breaths while you sleep. An apnea, which is the period of time when breathing stops or is reduced, can occur anywhere from a few seconds to minutes. After a pause, normal breathing starts again, usually with a snort or choking sounds. Sleep apnea is an ongoing (or chronic) disease that disrupts your sleep three or more times per week.
Why does sleep apnea occur?
During normal sleep, the brain tells the breathing muscles to take a breath. Central sleep apnea (CNA) means the brain does not send the signal to the muscles to take a breath. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) means their is a block in airflow (an obstruction) that can be caused by a collapse of the muscles in the back of the throat. Mixed sleep apnea is a combination of the two.
The most common signs and symptoms include:
- excessive daytime sleepiness
- loud snoring
- breathing pauses and gasping during sleep
- sudden awakenings followed by a shortness of breath
- waking up with a dry mouth or sore throat
- morning headaches
- difficulty concentrating
Usually, the awakenings are so brief that a person does not remember them or realize sleep is disrupted. Instead, sleep apnea is often only noticed by someone who hears the loud gasping or snoring after a period of silence.Who gets sleep apnea?
More than 12 million adults in the United States have sleep apnea. Although sleep apnea can occur in anyone, it is more common in men and older people. Risk factors include:
- being overweight
- alcohol, sedative and tranquilizer use
- high blood pressure
- large tonsils and tongue in comparison to throat size and neck circumference
How is sleep apnea diagnosed?
A health care provider will diagnose sleep apnea based on medical history, physical exams, and sleep studies. To understand sleeping patterns, a health care provider will often ask family members to report abnormal gasping and snoring while sleeping. A health care provider will check a person's throat, nose and mouth for large tissues. A sleep study is the most accurate test for sleep apnea, and it may require an overnight stay.
How is sleep apnea treated?
Sleep apnea can be treated, and treatment depends on the severity of symptoms. The goals of treatment for sleep apnea are to restore normal breathing during sleep and relieve symptoms.
Mild sleep apnea treatments include lifestyle changes such as weight-loss, quitting smoking, avoiding alcohol and lying on a side to sleep. Oral appliances that hold the jaw and tongue forward can be helpful for treating mild sleep apnea in people who are not overweight.
The most common treatment for moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea is using a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. The CPAP delivers a stream of compressed air through a hose attached to a mask that is worn over the nose and/or mouth during sleep. The compressed air helps keep the airway open.
In severe cases that can't be treated with other treatments, surgery on the specific area that causes the obstruction might be the most effective treatment.