Obstructive sleep apnea is a sleeping disorder in which the individual’s upper airway is narrowed, causing natural breathing to be restricted and interrupted.
Although not getting enough sleep can seem like a minor ailment, obstructive sleep apnea can become life-threatening, as cessation of breathing may lead to severe cardiovascular complications and high blood pressure.
A typical profile for an obstructive sleep apnea patient would be over forty, overweight and male. However, even children can suffer from sleep apnea, with one of their first symptoms often being falling asleep at school or at other inappropriate times during the day.
Many people are not aware they have sleep apnea, only that they wake up feeling that they are not rested. Perhaps they may feel the urge to nap throughout the day. They suffer from fatigue.
A person living alone who has obstructive sleep apnea may not be diagnosed for years. Many times, the only symptom they can report to their physician is the feeling of being tired all the time. If the person’s blood oxygen level were examined, it would likely be low. Their blood pressure may be high. It is estimated that about ten million Americans may have some form of sleep apnea that has not been diagnosed.
However, anyone living closely with a person suffering from obstructive sleep apnea will be well aware of the symptoms the sleeper is experiencing. There will be excessive snoring, accompanied by or alternating with what appears to be a cessation of breathing and no sound at all. A person with sleep apnea can cease breathing over one hundred times a night.
Structural differences which cause a narrowed airway in certain individuals are a primary cause of obstructive sleep apnea. Many times the tissue is softer around the airway. People with allergies often develop obstructive sleep apnea due to the presence of additional mucus. Many persons with obstructive sleep apnea have a thicker neck and upper torso area than other people.
In adults, smoking and alcohol can speed up the aging process and cause a weakness in respiration and muscle tone which can lead to sleep apnea. Taking any medication such as a sedative or muscle relaxant can also lead to a muscular weakness resulting in sleep apnea.
The accurate diagnosis of obstructive sleep apnea is dependent upon a tool called a polysomnogram, which records breathing patterns during sleep. The test is normally done at a medical diagnostic sleep center.
Imaging techniques such as CT and MRI scans and simple X-ray can aid in visualizing structural abnormalities in the patient.
Although obstructive sleep apnea sometimes requires surgery to repair structural problems, for most individuals the treatment for their apnea can be noninvasive.
An oral appliance can be made for the patient which moves the bottom jaw and tongue forward in order to open the upper airway further.
Many sleep apnea patients sleep with a device called a CPAP, which provides continuous pressure to the back of the throat through use of a small, lightly blowing fan. This opens up the airway and allows the individual to breathe regularly. Some CPAP devices auto adjust to the patient’s breathing, while others merely lower the exhalation level.
Once sleep apnea has been diagnosed, and effective treatment is applied continuously, most sleep apnea patients can live a long, normal life.
National Institute of Health
Signet/Mosby Medical Encyclopedia