What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is an interruption in breathing during sleep that occurs for 10 to 30 seconds at a time. These short stops in breathing can occur hundreds of times a night and prevent you from getting the deep, restful sleep you need. Doctors estimate that approximately 18 million American suffer from sleep apnea. This common condition usually afflicts men and those who are over forty years of age more often than others. However, sleep apnea can affect any person at any age.

Obstructive and Central Sleep Apnea

There are two different kinds of sleep apnea: obstructive apnea and central apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type, and afflicts 90% of people suffering from sleep apnea. In obstructive sleep apnea, something is blocking the airway to the lungs (also called the trachea). This can be caused by a large amount of fatty tissue in the throat as well as the tongue, tonsils or uvula. Central sleep apnea is a much rarer condition and caused by problems with the central nervous system which tell the body to breath during sleep. The muscles used to breath in this type of sleep apnea fail to get the correct signal from the brain, causing an interruption in your sleep.

If left untreated, sleep apnea can be a dangerous condition. People suffering from sleep apnea have been known to fall asleep while driving or while at work. The risk of heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure is also higher if sleep apnea is left untreated.

Determining if You Have Sleep Apnea

Your doctor will usually request a sleep test, called a polysomnography, to determine if you are suffering from sleep apnea. A polysomnography is a sophisticated test usually performed at a sleep study center. The test involves the monitoring of brain activity, eye and jaw muscle movement, leg movement, respiration and oxygen level as well as audio monitoring. Sensors are placed on the patient before bedtime and then information is gathered and fed into a computer during sleep. Your doctor analyzes the reports from the computer to determine what is really happening when you sleep, and if you have sleep apnea.

How is Sleep Apnea Treated?

Mild sleep apnea can often be treated by behavioral changes. Losing weight and sleeping on your side are two of the most important changes. There are also oral mouth devices that can be worn to keep your airway open during sleep. These also help prevent snoring.

Moderate to severe sleep apnea is usually treated with a C-PAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine. This device blows air into your nose to create positive pressure that keeps your airway open during sleep. For more severe sleep apnea cases, there is a Bi-Level (Bi-PAP) machine which blows air at two different pressures to keep the airway open. Your physician will determine the correct air pressure needed to allow you to sleep uninterrupted and achieve a good night’s rest.

Depending on the causes involved, there are also other methods to treat sleep apnea, including fixing a deviated septum to open the nasal passages and removing the tonsils and adenoids. Other surgical methods are sometimes utilized for treating sleep apnea, usually for patients that cannot tolerate using a C-PAP machine.

If you feel you are suffering from sleep apnea, talk to your doctor as soon as possible. With effective treatments readily available, there’s no reason to keep suffering from the danger of sleep apnea.

Do You Have Sleep Apnea?

Since you are sleeping when it occurs, it is not always easy to recognize sleep apnea. It is often first recognized by a spouse. Here are some key warning signs:

  • Recurrent daytime sleepiness, irritability and fatigue
  • Loud, heavy snoring while sleeping
  • Long pauses in your breathing during sleep
  • Waking with a headache in the morning

If you have any of these symptoms, you could be suffering from sleep apnea. Sleep apnea can be a dangerous condition, so talk to your doctor to learn how you can be tested. Call the Pulmonary & Critical Care department at (508) 368-3120.