Apnea means without breath and some people with sleep apnea have breathing pauses that last for a few seconds to minutes during their sleep. There are 3 types: obstructive, central and mixed. Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common where there is a blockage of the airway usually by the soft tissue in the back of the throat. People with untreated sleep apnea stop breathing during their sleep. The muscles in the back of the throat relax making your airway narrower as your breath in. This can lower the level of oxygen in your blood causing your brain to sense the need to breathe and awakens you.
You can be at risk for obstructive sleep apnea due to excess weight, large neck circumference greater than 17 inches, high blood pressure, a naturally narrow throat (or tonsil/adenoids enlarged), male, women in menopause, smokers, taking any substance to relax the muscles of the throat (alcohol, medications), prolonged sitting and adults older than 65 years old. Common symptoms include loud snoring, restless sleep and sleepiness during the daytime. Persons with sleep apnea have excessive daytime sleepiness (hypersomnia), abrupt awakenings and may awaken with a dry mouth or sore throat.
There are different tests that can be performed to detect sleep apnea. These include a nocturnal polysomnography (sleep study at an overnight sleep center) or use of a portable monitoring device. An ear, nose and throat doctor or otolaryngologist can also determine if there is any blockage in the nose or throat that needs corrected.
Some treatments for mild sleep apnea involve lifestyle changes, losing weight and quitting smoking. Many benefit from sleeping at a 30 degree angle of the upper body or in a recliner or on your side, and avoiding alcohol close to bedtime. The most common treatment for sleep apnea is CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) therapy. It is a machine about the size of a shoebox or smaller. A flexible tube connects the machine with a mask or device that is worn over the nose and/or mouth. The machine works by pushing air through the airway passage to prevent apneas. It is a medical device and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must approve any before being sold. You must also have a script from your physician to obtain a CPAP. There are also oral devices that can be worn to keep your throat open. Surgery is an option to remove excessive tissue from the nose or throat that may be blocking your upper airway.
Untreated sleep apnea can lead to increased blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, diabetes and obesity, irregular heartbeats. Sleep apnea can occur in the young, old and even children. If you think you have any of these symptoms, please see your physician immediately for treatment.
American Sleep Apnea Association: http://www.sleepapnea.org/
The National Heart lung and blood Institute: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/SleepApnea/SleepApnea_WhatIs.html
Mayo Clinic: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/sleep-apnea/DS00148