What Is Sleep Apnea?
Last Modified: November 18, 2010
Sleep apnea causes people to stop breathing for brief periods during sleep. A person with sleep apnea may stop breathing as often as 30 times an hour, according to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (2009). The brain detects that breathing has stopped and disturbs the sleeping individual to resume breathing. However, sleep apnea symptoms may not fully awaken the individual, so he may not be aware of nighttime symptoms.
Types of Sleep Apnea
Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type of this disorder. Over 12 million Americans suffer from obstructive sleep apnea symptoms, according to the American Sleep Apnea Association (2008). The condition is more common in people who are overweight. Men are more likely to have sleep apnea than women.
Obstructive sleep apnea causes the airways in the throat to collapse, which interrupts breathing. The soft tissue at the back of the throat is usually the cause of obstructive sleep apnea, although enlarged tonsils can also block the airway.
Central sleep apnea is less common than obstructive sleep apnea. Central sleep apnea symptoms develop if the brain fails to send the correct signals to the muscles necessary for breathing. The airway stays open, but breathing temporarily ceases.
Complex or mixed sleep apnea occurs when both obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea are present.
Sleep Apnea Symptoms
Sleep apnea symptoms are similar for all three varieties of this sleep disorder, including:
Difficulty functioning during waking hours
Excessive daytime sleepiness
Snoring and snorting noises are common sleep apnea symptoms. Snoring may occur due to airway obstructions. Snorting and gasping occur as breathing resumes. Not all snoring indicates sleep apnea, but regular snoring suggests the need for a medical examination to rule out sleep apnea symptoms.
Sleep Apnea Complications
Untreated sleep apnea causes serious health complications and can increase the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke. While obstructive sleep apnea may contribute to heart disease, central sleep apnea sometimes develops as a consequence of heart problems or stroke.
Sleep apnea can cause sleep disruptions in bed partners as well as the individual suffering sleep apnea symptoms. Loud snoring often disturbs a partner’s sleep, sometimes to the extent that sleeping in separate rooms is required.
Sleep Apnea Machines and Pillows
Sleep apnea symptoms respond well to treatment. Possible treatment includes losing weight or using a sleep apnea machine. Sleep apnea machines provide a steady flow of air that prevents airway collapse. The individual breathes through a mask attached to the sleep apnea machine. Sleep apnea machines include CPAP and BPAP devices.
Not everyone can adapt to sleeping with a sleep apnea machine. Alternative treatment includes surgery for obstructive sleep apnea, dental devices to keep airways open and the use of a sleep apnea pillow.
Sleep apnea pillow designs help keep airways open. The sleep apnea pillow supports the neck, and may help relieve mild sleep apnea symptoms. People with moderate to severe sleep apnea may need more treatment than a sleep apnea pillow can provide.
American Sleep Apnea Association. (2008). Sleep apnea information. Retrieved August 13, 2010, from http://www.sleepapnea.org/info/index.html.
American Sleep Apnea Association. (2008). Treatment options for adults with obstructive sleep apnea. Retrieved August 19, 2010, from http://www.sleepapnea.org/resources/pubs/treatment.html.
Mayo Clinic. (2010). Sleep apnea. Retrieved August 13, 2010, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/sleep-apnea/DS00148.
National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. (2009). Sleep apnea. Retrieved August 13, 2010, from http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/SleepApnea/SleepApnea_WhatIs.html.