The word “apnea” comes from the Greek and literally means “without breath.” People with sleep apnea stop breathing while they sleep. This can happen up to hundreds of times per night, and episodes of non-breathing can last up to a minute or more. According to The National Institutes of Health, as many as 12 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea.
There are three types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), central sleep apnea, and mixed apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type. With this condition, soft tissue in the back of the throat collapses during sleep and blocks the airway. With central sleep apnea, the brain “forgets” to signal the muscles to breath. Mixed apnea, as the name suggests, is a combination of the two. When the person with sleep apnea stops breathing, the brain usually arouses them so that they will resume breathing. Therefore, they wake up many, many times throughout the night.
Sleep apnea occurs mainly in adults. It is more common in males than in females. Morbidly obese adults are most likely to suffer sleep apnea (usually obstructive sleep apnea).
Sleep apnea can cause a number of health problems, including cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, headaches, impotency, and weight gain. Excessive daytime sleepiness is common due to waking so frequently during the night.
Symptoms of sleep apnea include snoring, making gasping or choking noises during sleep, and excessive daytime sleepiness. While people with sleep apnea often wake up many times during the night, these periods of wakefulness are often very brief, lasting 30 seconds or less. Therefore people may not even be aware of how often they are waking up. People may also be unaware of the fact that they snore or make gasping or choking noises during sleep, unless a bed partner reports this. For these reasons, many people with sleep apnea do not know they have the condition.
If you suspect you might have sleep apnea, you should see your doctor. Your doctor will take a history and ask about your symptoms. The doctor will then conduct a physical exam, which will include checking the mouth, nose, and throat for extra or large tissues. Children with sleep apnea often have enlarged tissues. Adults with sleep apnea may have an enlarged uvula (the flap of skin that hangs from the middle of the back of the mouth) or an enlarged soft palate (the roof of the mouth in the back of the throat).
If your doctor suspects you might have sleep apnea, you will be referred for a sleep study, or polysomnogram. For the polysomnogram, you will sleep overnight in a sleep studies center. Electrodes will be attached to your scalp, face, chest, limbs, and finger. These sensors will record your brain activity, eye movements and other muscle activity, respiratory rate, heart rate, and blood oxygen level. A sleep specialist will review the results of the polysomnogram to see if episodes of apnea are occurring during sleep.
If you have sleep apnea, treatment will be prescribed based on the severity of your condition. You may be fitted for a mouthpiece that will adjust your lower jaw and tongue to help keep the airway open. This is most likely to be used in cases of mild sleep apnea.
In more severe cases of sleep apnea, a CPAP machine may be prescribed. CPAP stands for “continuous positive airway pressure.” The CPAP machine comes with a mask that fits over the mouth and nose. Air is gently blown into the throat, which keeps the airway open.
In some cases, sleep apnea may be treated with surgery. In children with enlarged tonsils, removing the tonsils may solve the problem. In adults with extra tissue in the mouth or throat, removing the excess tissue may solve the problem.
In addition, there are some simple things you can do on your own to help with sleep apnea. If you are overweight, losing weight may make a big difference. Sleeping on your side rather than on your back can help keep the airway open. Avoid the use of alcohol and sleeping pills if possible, because these can make it more difficult for the airway to stay open during sleep.
American Sleep Apnea Association. http://www.sleepapnea.org/info/index.html. Sleep Apnea Information.
National Institutes of Health. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/SleepApnea/SleepApnea_WhatIs.html. Sleep Apnea.