What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is when breathing stops temporarily as a person sleeps. More than 12 million Americans are affected by sleep apnea. There are three types of sleep apnea:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type. It is caused by the airway being blocked, usually by soft tissue in the rear of the throat, causing the throat to collapse and close during sleep.
  • Central sleep apnea is when the muscles that control breathing fail to receive the proper signals from the brain.
  • Mixed sleep apnea is a combination of both obstructive and central sleep apnea.

No matter what type of sleep apnea a person has, those with untreated sleep apnea repeatedly stop breathing throughout their sleep. The brain will respond by waking the individual so that breathing may resume, but the frequent stops and starts throughout the night results in very fragmented patterns of low-quality sleep.

Overweight men over 40 have the highest risk of developing sleep apnea, but anyone at any age can suffer from sleep apnea, including children. Unfortunately, the majority of people who suffer from this sleep disorder go left untreated due to lack of awareness.

Diagnosis

Your doctor will use a combination of factors to diagnose sleep apnea, including a complete medical and family history, a physical exam and a sleep study, which involves an overnight stay at a sleep center for constant monitoring. A polysomnogram may also be used to record brain activity, eye movement, muscle movement, heart rate, breathing patterns and oxygen levels, which will help determine whether or not a person has sleep apnea.

Treatment

Treatments vary depending on the severity of a person’s sleep apnea. For milder cases, mere lifestyle changes such as stopping smoking or losing weight may be beneficial in improving the signs and symptoms of sleep apnea. More severe cases of sleep apnea can be treated in a variety of ways, from the use of certain devices such as continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) devices, to surgery.

  • CPAP (See-pap) is a machine that delivers air pressure through a mask that you will wear over your nose while you sleep. The increased pressure of air helps keep the upper airway passages open thus preventing apnea and snoring. While CPAP is the most preferred treatment technique for sleep apnea, some patients find it uncomfortable. Often times though, minor adjustments or a different mask may alleviate any discomfort.
  • Non-surgical treatment methods for sleep apnea include adjustable airway devices that automatically adjust your air pressure as you inhale and exhale; and oral appliances that are designed to keep your throat open allowing air to pass more freely in and out of your lungs.
  • Surgery is used in more complex cases of sleep apnea. Whether excess tissue is vibrating in your nose and/or throat thus causing you to snore, or your upper airway passages are blocked causing sleep apnea, surgery will help alleviate the underlying problem. Surgical options range from the removal of excessive tissues from the back of the throat (adenoids and tonsils) and nose (polyps), and jaw surgery to reduce the potential obstruction of the upper airway, to a tracheostomy, which involves inserting a plastic or metal tube into your neck to allow air to easily pass to and from your lungs while you sleep.

If left untreated, sleep apnea can cause high blood pressure and other cardiovascular diseases, as well as weight gain, memory loss, impotency and headaches. In addition, untreated sleep apnea causes severe fatigue, which may lead to poor job performance and motor vehicle crashes.