Sleep apnea refers to non-breathing episodes during sleep, occurring as frequently as several hundred times per night. Loud, irregular snoring occurs as the person attempts to breathe at the end of each episode.
Although the individual may have had a full night's sleep, he or she still feels tired during the day. This surprisingly common sleep disorder is an illness which can progress in severity and become life-threatening if not detected and properly treated.
Over 20,000,000 Americans suffer from sleep apnea. Although it seems to be more common in middle-aged men and affects 40 percent of all people over 60 years of age, anyone at any age may develop sleep apnea.
Types of Sleep Apnea
- Obstructive sleep apnea is caused by an obstruction from the tonsils, uvula or fatty tissue, or by involuntary muscle relaxation which blocks airflow during sleep.
- Central sleep apnea is caused by the brain failing to send proper signals to regulate breathing.
- Mixed sleep apnea refers to a combination of central and obstructive types.
Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type of sleep apnea. It is characterized by repetitive episodes of upper airway obstruction that occur during sleep, which is usually associated with a reduction in blood oxygen saturation.
Symptoms include excessive daytime sleepiness and frequent episodes of obstructed breathing during sleep. (The patient may be unaware of this symptom – usually the bed partner is extremely aware of this.)
Associated symptoms may include:
- Morning headaches
- A dry mouth upon awakening
- Chest retraction during sleep in young children (chest pulls in)
- High blood pressure
- Change in personality
- Difficulty concentrating
- Excessive perspiring during sleep
- Reduced libido
- Frequent nocturnal urination
- Nocturnal snorting, gasping or choking (may wake self up)
- Confusion upon awakening
How Serious Is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a potentially life-threatening condition that requires immediate medical attention. The risks of undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnea include heart attack, stroke, impotence, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure and heart disease.
In addition, obstructive sleep apnea causes daytime sleepiness that can result in accidents, lost productivity and interpersonal relationship problems. The severity of the symptoms may be mild, moderate or severe.
Mild sleep apnea is usually treated by some behavioral changes. Losing weight and sleeping on your side are often recommended. There are oral mouth devices on the market that help keep the airway open and may help reduce snoring in three different ways.
Some devices bring the jaw forward; others elevate the soft palate. A 3rd type retains the tongue, keeping it from falling back in the airway and blocking breathing. Sleep apnea is a progressive condition that gets worse with age, and it should not be taken lightly.
Moderate to severe sleep apnea is usually treated with a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). CPAP is a machine that blows air into the nose via a nose mask, keeping the airway open and unobstructed. For more severe apnea, there is a Bi-level (Bi-PAP) machine. The Bi-level machine is different in that it blows air at 2 different pressures. When a person inhales, the pressure is higher and in exhaling, the pressure is lower. Your sleep doctor will "prescribe" your pressure and a home healthcare company will set it up and provide training in its use and maintenance.
Some people have facial deformities that may cause the sleep apnea. It simply may be that their jaw is smaller than it should be or they could have a smaller opening at the back of the throat. Some people have enlarged tonsils, a large tongue or some other tissues partially blocking the airway. Fixing a deviated septum may help to open the nasal passages. Removing the tonsils and adenoids or polyps may help also. Children are much more likely to have their tonsils and adenoids removed.