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HomeHealth A-Z Sleep Apnea
Sleep Apnea
Sleep Apnea
Many individuals who have sleep apnea suffer from loud snoring, restless sleep, and headaches in the morning.

Sleep Apnea

(sleep AP-nee-uh)

Definition of Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder characterized by the repeated temporary interruptions in breathing that occurs while a person is sleeping.

Description of Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea, also known as sleep aponea, is a true sleep disorder. This sleep disorder is distinguishable because it causes interruptions in breathing while the effected individual is sleeping. Each interruption is known as an apnea, which means “without breath”. Each apnea varies in length but is long enough so at least one breath is missed. Most individuals will experience apneas throughout the duration of their sleep.

Most doctors define an apneic event as one that has a 10 second pause between breaths. Many doctors will also measure the desaturation of the blood oxygen and if it is three to four percent or more it can be assumed that there has been an apneic event. Those that suffer from more than 5 apneic events per hour of sleep are considered to have clinically significant levels of sleep apnea.

There are two basic types of sleep apnea known as central sleep apnea and obstructive sleep apnea. In central sleep apnea breathing is interrupted or paused by the lack of effort to breathe. In obstructive sleep apnea the breathing process is interrupted by a physical blockage or obstruction to the airflow, despite making an effort to breath. There is also mixed sleep apnea, and this is a sleep apnea in which the individual switches back and forth from central to obstructive sleep apnea.

Oddly enough, many people who have sleep apnea don’t even know that they have it. Instead, the people who sleep with or around the individual usually notice that there are lapses in breathing. Many individuals have sleep apnea for months or even years at a time without it dawning on them that they are more tired than they used to be during the day.

Sleep apnea is very common; it’s thought that at least one in five individuals have the condition. It’s also worth noting that sleep apnea is seen all around the world in different cultures.

Causes and Risk Factors of Sleep Apnea

The cause of obstructive sleep apnea is the relaxation of the muscles and skin during sleep. When the airway relaxes or collapses during sleep it actually obstructs the airway, thus causing apneic events. In central sleep apnea there is actually an imbalance in the respiratory portion of the brain that causes the pause in breathing.

There are many different risk factors associated with apnea. One risk factor is obesity. The majority of patients with sleep apnea are obese and far outside of their healthy weight range, especially if the majority of the weight is carried around the middle of the body. Also, heaviness in the face and neck can be a risk factor for obstructive, central, and mixed sleep apnea. Men typically experience sleep apnea more often then women, but as men and women age women generally acquire the condition at about the same rate as men. Those who have cranial facial abnormalities are at risk of developing sleep apnea. Conditions such as Downs Syndrome and cleft pallets may make the condition more likely. Many children who suffer from the disease do so because of obstructions caused by the tonsils or the adenoids or a combination of the two. Generally a tonsillectomy can cure obstructive sleep apnea in children.

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

There are many classic symptoms that can help doctors determine whether or not their patients may be suffering from sleep apnea. These symptoms may not apply to all patients, but they can help a doctor determine if further testing is required to make an informed diagnosis.

Many individuals who have sleep apnea suffer from loud snoring, restless sleep, and headaches in the morning. Other symptoms are problems with concentration, irritability, memory problems, increased heart rate, anxiety, depression, bedwetting, sweating excessively at night, and reflux.

Diagnosis of Sleep Apnea

The diagnosis of sleep apnea is done with a test called a polysomnography. This test allows for the doctor to see the lapses or pauses in breathing and then looks for the decrease in blood oxygen after the pauses and also looks for the increase of carbon dioxide. The diagnosis isn’t difficult but will involve a sleep study so that the doctor can determine what sort of apnea the patient has so that the best form of treatment can be sought. What is called hypoapnea can be diagnosed if the individual has a 50% decrease in air flow for ten seconds or more and is followed by 4% less oxygen in the blood.

Treatment of Sleep Apnea

Luckily, there are many different treatments for obstructive sleep apnea, the most common type of apnea. Choosing a treatment will involve looking at the patient’s medical history, how severe the condition is, and of course, what exactly is causing the obstruction. In many cases a steroid can be given to someone who is experiencing inflammation in the throat that is causing the apnea and in some simply removing the tonsils and adenoids can put an end to the sleep apnea.

Treatments for central and obstructive sleep apnea may include ceasing the use of alcohol or medications that cause the central nervous system to relax. Many will also find that they can treat their sleep apnea easily by losing weight or even stopping smoking. There are specific pillows that may also help them position themselves so that they breath better and oral products that keep the airway open during sleep. In severe cases doctors will prescribe continuous positive airway pressure which is applied with a mask and tube that is attached to a machine that will blow air into the airway to keep it open. These treatments are available in conjunction with surgeries that will tighten the tissue around the airway. In addition to these treatments there are medications, nuerostimulation that can come to the aid of those that need help treating their sleep apnea.

Prevention of Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea can be treated by staying in shape, exercising, and eating a healthy diet. Many of the people who have apnea have it because they have gained weight around the middle section of their body. Sleeping on your side can also help prevent sleep apnea, as can avoiding taking sedatives or drinking alcohol, which will relax the nervous system. Treating colds and breathing problems appropriately and timely fashion will also help to avoid prevention.

Sleep apnea should be avoided and prevented at all costs. It is known to cause heart problems, which can lead to death. Preventing sleep apnea can literally save your life. If you already have sleep apnea you can treat it, taking it seriously every step of the way.

External Resources

American Sleep Apnea Association

Stanford University

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