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What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a disorder in which breathing stops and starts during sleep. It is a major cause of daytime sleepiness and can potentially have serious consequences. Anyone can have sleep apnea, but you are at higher risk if:

  • Are male - sleep apnea is more common in men than women
  • Are over age 40 - more than half of all cases are diagnosed in this age group
  • Snore loudly - most people with obstructive sleep apnea also snore, although not everyone who snores has sleep apnea
  • Are overweight or obese
  • Have high blood pressure
  • Have a structural abnormality in your nose, throat or other parts of your upper airway that causes blockage
  • Have nasal allergies and/or chronic nasal congestion
  • Have a family history of sleep apnea
  • Use alcohol, tobacco or sleeping pills

Sleep Apnea symptoms

If you or someone else notices you that you stop and start breathing while sleeping, you may have sleep apnea. Other signs include excessive daytime sleepiness, poor concentration and early morning headaches.

Types of Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea - occurs when the throat muscles and tongue relax during sleep. This can block the opening of your airway, causing breathing to become difficult or to stop altogether. When the brain senses you aren't getting enough oxygen, it briefly wakes you to resume breathing. This cycle can repeat itself as many as 20 or 30 times an hour. For most people with obstructive sleep apnea, each awakening is so brief it goes unnoticed. Although unaware of sleep interruption, this condition prevents a deep, restful sleep.

Central sleep apnea - is much less common than obstructive sleep apnea. This condition occurs when the brain fails to send the proper signals to the muscles that control breathing. Unlike the obstructive type, which is intermittent, central sleep apnea is a constant problem and is frequently present from birth. Most people with central sleep apnea require assisted ventilation during sleep.

Sleep Apnea Treatment

Early diagnosis and treatment of sleep apnea is important because the condition may be associated with irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke. For those with symptoms of sleep apnea, your doctor may order a test called polysomnography. During this test, patients are connected to sensors that record a variety of body functions during sleep such as pulse rate, respiratory rate, oxygen saturation and EEG activity.

Treatment for sleep apnea varies, depending on medical history, physical examination and polysomnography results. The most common treatment for sleep apnea is continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). In this treatment, patients wear a mask over the nose during sleep, to force slight air pressure from a compressor through the nasal passages. The air pressure is adjusted so it is just enough to prevent the throat from collapsing during sleep.

Some people with sleep apnea may need surgery. Several surgical procedures can be used to increase the size of the airway. This may include the correction of structural deformities or the removal of:

  • Adenoids and tonsils (especially in children)
  • Nasal polyps (noncancerous tumors) or other growths
  • Excess tissue in the airway

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