The Greek word “apnea” literally means “want of breath,” making it a dramatic – and very accurate – description of this potentially deadly sleep disorder.
Sleep apnea is a serious, potentially life-threatening condition that is far more common than generally understood. Sleep apnea occurs in all age groups and both genders. It is more common in men, although it may be underdiagnosed in women and young African-Americans. It is estimated that as many as 18 million Americans have sleep apnea.
What Is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder that causes your breathing to stop or get very shallow while you’re sleeping. Each pause typically lasts 10 to 20 seconds or more. These pauses in your breathing can occur 20 to 30 times or more an hour.
Signs and Symptoms of Sleep Apnea
The most common signs of sleep apnea are:
- Heavy snoring
- Choking or gasping during sleep
- Excessive sleepiness during the day (even at work or while driving)
Causes of Sleep Apnea
There are two types of sleep apnea, each with its own causes and effects.
Obstructive sleep apnea, which is the most common form, occurs when there isn’t enough air flowing into your lungs through your mouth and nose.
This restricted airflow can be caused by an obstruction in your airways such as irregular or large tonsils, uvula, or neck size, or the soft tissue in your throat relaxing when you’re in a certain stage of sleep.
When your airway becomes obstructed, the amount of oxygen in your blood may drop, causing your heart to work harder – putting you at a higher risk for heart disease, hypertension and a number of other life-threatening diseases.
Starting with a loud snort or choking sound, normal breathing resumes because your brain realizes that it’s lacking oxygen. The cycle repeats itself throughout the night, making you feel tired in the morning due to the lack of a full night’s sleep.
Central sleep apnea is a rare type of sleep apnea that happens when the area of your brain that controls your breathing doesn't send the correct signals to the breathing muscles. As a result, there‘s no effort to breathe at all for brief periods of time. Snoring does not typically occur in central sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea can cause a reduction in oxygen supply to the body and brain, causing a strain on the heart and lungs and profoundly disturbing your sleep. Long-term untreated sleep apnea can lead to other health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.
Those suffering from sleep apnea are also at a greater risk of depression, irritability, loss of memory, lack of energy, auto and workplace accidents, and many other problems.
What You Can Do
The “self-care” options recommended for people with insomnia, such as avoiding caffeine and establishing nighttime rituals, can ease snoring and other symptoms of sleep apnea.
What Your Doctor Can Do
The only way to definitively diagnose sleep apnea is an overnight sleep study in a specialized lab. This high-tech test, called polysomnography, uses electrodes placed on your head and body to monitor and record vital bodily functions while you sleep.
Treatment for sleep apnea is aimed at restoring regular nighttime breathing and relieving symptoms such as loud snoring and daytime sleepiness. Successful medical treatment options include:
- Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP): CPAP is the most common treatment for sleep apnea. A CPAP mask is worn during sleep and continuously blows air into your airway to keep it clear of obstructions.
- Oral appliance therapy: A mouthpiece (oral appliance) to correct anatomical abnormalities may be helpful to some people with mild sleep apnea. Some doctors may also recommend this if you snore loudly but don't have sleep apnea.
In some cases, your sleep specialist may recommend surgery to open up your airways by removing your tonsils and adenoids or widening the soft palate (the roof of your mouth in the back of your throat).
Are you ready to put your sleep problems to rest?
If you think you may have a sleep disorder, call the Crozer-Keystone Sleep Centers at 1-888-SLEEP-03 (1-888-753-3703) or use our easy online request form – our sleep technicians are available 24 hours a day.
Request an Appointment
To request an appointment at a Crozer-Keystone Sleep Center, complete our online secure appointment request form or call 1-888-753-3703.