What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a serious, potentially life-threatening sleep disorder. It affects approximately 18 million Americans. It owes its name to the Greek word apnea, meaning “want of breath” and refers to episodes in which a person stops breathing for 10 seconds or more during sleep. With each episode, the sleeper’s brain briefly wakes up in order to resume breathing, resulting in extremely fragmented and poor-quality sleep.

What are the different types of sleep apnea?

There are two major types of sleep apnea, both of which can severely disrupt the regular sleep cycle:

  • Obstructive apnea: A s you sleep the muscles in the walls of your throat relax to the point where the airway collapses and prevents air from flowing into your nose and mouth, but efforts to breathe continue. This is the most common type of apnea.
  • Central apnea: Breathing interruptions during sleep are caused by problems with the brain mechanisms that control breathing.

What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?

People with sleep apnea usually do not remember waking up during the night. Indications of the problem may include the following:

  • Morning headaches
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Irritability and impaired mental or emotional functioning
  • Excessive snoring, choking or gasping during sleep
  • Insomnia
  • Awakening with a dry mouth or sore throat

What is the difference between snoring and sleep apnea?

Unlike mild snoring, individuals with sleep apnea stop breathing completely for 10 seconds or more, typically between 10 and 60 times in a single night. A person with severe sleep apnea may have more than 100 waking episodes. If your partner hears loud snoring, punctuated by silences and then a snort or choking sound as you resume breathing, this pattern could signal sleep apnea. While snoring and sleep apnea are related disorders, not all snorers will develop sleep apnea, and not all sleep apnea patients snore.

Why is sleep apnea a concern?

Studies have shown that patients with this potentially life-threatening disorder are so fatigued during the day that when driving, their performance is similar to that of a drunk driver. If left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to impaired daytime functioning, high blood pressure, heart attack and possibly stroke. If you already have a weakened heart, apnea can aggravate your condition by placing stress on your heart during sleep.

Who is at risk for developing sleep apnea?

It is estimated that as many as 18 million Americans have sleep apnea. It is more common in men, although it may be underdiagnosed in women and young African-Americans. Sleep apnea tends to run in some families, although no genetic link has been proven. Risk factors associated with sleep apnea include the following:

  • Physical abnormality in the nose, throat or other parts of the upper airway
  • Obesity
  • High blood pressure
  • Smoking, which can cause inflammation, swelling and narrowing of the upper airway
  • Use of alcohol or sedatives and sleep medications

What are my treatment options?

Treatment is based on your medical history, physical examination and the results of polysomnography. If you have mild obstructive sleep apnea, initial treatment may include avoiding sleeping on your back, losing weight or cessation of smoking. Dental appliances that reposition the lower jaw and the tongue have been helpful to some patients with mild sleep apnea or those who snore but do not have apnea.

If you have severe sleep apnea, continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) systems -resembling something a jet pilot might wear- is a commonly prescribed therapy. CPAP delivers air through a small mask that covers the nose, and the constant pressure keeps the airway open, which prevents both snoring and episodes of apnea. If a patient has trouble tolerating CPAP, surgery also can eliminate sleep apnea symptoms; but medications are generally ineffective.