What is Sleep Apnea?
By Marlo Sollitto
Sleep apnea is a disorder in which people have one or more pauses in breathing while you sleep. Breathing pauses can last from a few seconds to minutes. They often occur 5 to 30 times or more an hour. Typically, normal breathing then starts again, sometimes with a loud snort or choking sound.
Sleep apnea usually is a chronic ongoing condition that disrupts your sleep. You often move out of deep sleep and into light sleep when your breathing pauses or becomes shallow.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea
The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea. This most often means that the airway has collapsed or is blocked during sleep. The blockage may cause shallow breathing or breathing pauses. When you try to breathe, any air that squeezes past the blockage can cause loud snoring. Obstructive sleep apnea is more common in people who are overweight, but it can affect anyone.
Central Sleep Apnea
Central sleep apnea (CSA) is caused by irregularities in the brain's normal signals to breathe. Most people with sleep apnea will have a combination of both types.
Untreated sleep apnea can:
- Increase the risk of high blood pressure, stroke, obesity, and diabetes
- Increase the risk of, or worsen, heart attack and hear failure
- Make arrhythmias or irregular heartbeats, more likely Increase the chance of having work-related or driving accidents
What Happens if Sleep Apnea Goes Untreated
Sleep apnea is a chronic condition that requires long-term management. Lifestyle changes, mouthpieces, surgery, and/or breathing devices can successfully treat sleep apnea in many people. Untreated, sleep apnea can be life threatening. Excessive daytime sleepiness can cause people to fall asleep at inappropriate times, such as while driving.
Sleep apnea also appears to put individuals at risk for stroke and transient ischemic attacks (TIAs, also known as "mini-strokes"), and is associated with coronary heart disease, heart failure, irregular heartbeat, heart attack, and high blood pressure. Although there is no cure for sleep apnea, recent studies show that successful treatment can reduce the risk of heart and blood pressure problems.
Treatments for Sleep Apnea
There are a variety of treatments for sleep apnea, depending on an individual's medical history and the severity of the disorder. Most treatment regimens begin with lifestyle changes, such as avoiding alcohol and medications that relax the central nervous system (for example, sedatives and muscle relaxants), losing weight, and quitting smoking. Some people are helped by special pillows or devices that keep them from sleeping on their backs, or oral appliances to keep the airway open during sleep.
If these conservative methods are inadequate, doctors often recommend continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, in which a face mask is attached to a tube and a machine that blows pressurized air into the mask and through the airway to keep it open.
Also available are machines that offer variable positive airway pressure (VPAP) and automatic positive airway pressure (APAP). There are also surgical procedures that can be used to remove tissue and widen the airway. Some individuals may need a combination of therapies to successfully treat their sleep apnea.