What is sleep apnea?

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea occurs when a person stops breathing momentarily during sleep. This might happen hundreds of times per night.

Photo Credit: Ana Abejon
By Susan Pitman

Sleep apnea occurs when a person stops breathing momentarily during sleep. This might happen only once or twice during the night or it might happen hundreds of times per night. The person wakes up each time there is an occurrence of sleep apnea, interrupting their sleep many times per night. The next morning, they might not even be aware that they had woken up at all.

During sleep, a person’s throat relaxes. In sleep apnea, the throat has relaxed so much that the soft tissue at the back of the throat has collapsed inwards and air cannot get through to the lungs for a short period of time. The throat may be closed for as little as 10 seconds to as long as a minute or more. The person’s brain sends a signal that they are not breathing. The person wakes, gasping for air. This is called obstructive sleep apnea, and it the most common kind. Another kind of sleep apnea, central apnea, is caused when the brain fails to send the signal to breathe to the muscles regulating breathing. This type of apnea is rare. The third type of apnea is mixed, where part of the cause is the lack of signals from the brain and part of the cause is the relaxation of the throat.

Overweight people, men, and people over 40 are most likely to have sleep apnea. It is a common problem, affecting over twelve million Americans. Some signs that you might have sleep apnea are waking frequently in the night, always feeling tired and sleepy during the day, morning headaches, mood swings, and a lessened interest in sex. If you sleep with someone, your sleeping partner might notice long pauses in your breathing or loud, frequent snoring.

Sleep apnea leads to higher blood pressure, which in turn leads to a higher risk of heart attacks or stroke. Since the person with sleep apnea seldom gets enough rest at night, they are often drowsy during the day and at greater risk for having accidents, especially when driving. The lack of sleep can also lead to headaches, memory problems, weight gain, impotence, and a decreased sex drive.

If a person suspects that he has sleep apnea, he should go to a doctor. The doctor might send him for a sleep study at a sleeping center. The person suspected of having sleep apnea might also be sent home with some equipment to do a home sleep study, since he is more likely to sleep naturally at home.

Treatment for sleep apnea ranges from the fairly simple to complex. Sleeping on one’s side instead of one’s back helps prevent sleep apnea. Avoiding alcohol and sleeping medications helps prevent sleep apnea, as these substances relax the throat. Overweight people should lose weight, as that will help eliminate the extra tissue in their throats that is helping to cause the throat to close. In severe cases, the person with apnea is fitted with a special machine, called a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine. This consists of a special mask worn over the nose and mouth while sleeping, attached to a machine that adds pressure to the air being breathed. This helps keep the throat open and prevent occurrences of apnea. In extreme cases of overweight, surgery is used to remove extra tissue from the throat, including the tonsils if necessary.

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