What is Sleep Apnea?

​​​​Sleep apnea is a disorder in which a person stops breathing during the night, perhaps hundreds of times, usually for periods of 10 seconds or longer and sometimes for as long as a minute.

These gaps in breathing are called apneas. (Apnea literally meaning absence of breath) It is usually accompanied by snoring. People who have sleep apnea may not even be aware of the condition, but it inevitably causes daytime sleepiness. Sleep apnea is generally categorized as obstructive, central, or mixed. A less severe form of obstructed breathing called upper airway resistance syndrome (UARS) is also worth mentioning.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA), the most common form of apnea, occurs when tissues in the upper throat (or airway) collapse at intervals during sleep, thereby blocking the passage of air.

What are the symptoms of Sleep Apnea?
People with sleep apnea usually do not remember waking up during the night. Indications of the
problem may be such vague symptoms as the following:
• Excessive daytime sleepiness
• Morning headaches
• Irritability and even impaired mental or emotional functioning
• Snoring (Bed partners may report very loud and interrupted snoring)
• Heartburn (Acid back up that causes heartburn, in fact, may be responsible for some
cases of sleep apnea)

How serious is Sleep Apnea?​

Sleep Apnea as a Cause of Obesity

Obesity and sleep apnea are a chicken and egg problem. It is not always clear which condition is responsible for the other. For example, obesity is often a risk factor and possibly a cause of sleep apnea, but it is also likely that sleep apnea increases the risk for weight gain.

Adverse Effects of Sleep Apnea on Heart and Circulation

  • Obesity, smoking, and alcohol abuse, known risk factors for hypertension and heart disease, are also associated with sleep apnea.

  • When breathing stops during episodes of apnea, carbon dioxide levels in the blood increase and oxygen levels drop. This effect may trigger a cascade of physical and chemical events that can then increase risk for these conditions.

High Blood Pressure. A number of studies have found a strong association between sleep apnea and high blood pressure (hypertension). The relationship between sleep apnea and hypertension has been thought to be largely due to obesity, a risk factor common to both conditions. Recent and major studies, however, are suggesting a higher rate of hypertension in people with sleep apnea regardless of weight. In those whose hypertension is resistant to treatment, sleep apnea is likely to be particularly severe.

Coronary Artery Disease and Heart Attack. Sleep apnea has been associated with heart disease regardless of the presence of high blood pressure or other heart risk factors. In one 2001 study, researchers observed that the more episodes of apnea and hypopnea a patient had, the higher the risk for a heart attack. Many of the factors associated with stroke and sleep apnea (a risk for blood clots and narrowing of the arteries) may also increase the risk for heart attacks.

Stroke. Sleep apnea appears to increase the chance for a stroke independent of its association with high blood pressure (a known risk factor for stroke). Sleep apnea in stroke patients is also associated with a higher risk for worse symptoms after a stroke, including delirium, depression, poor response to verbal stimuli, and difficulty conducting daily chores.

Heart Failure. Studies have reported that between 11% and 37% of heart failure patients also have sleep apnea. Central sleep apnea is particularly linked with heart failure.

How do I know if I have Sleep Apnea?

Your doctor can diagnose sleep apnea. The person you sleep with may notice it first. You, or that person, may notice heavy snoring or long pauses in your breathing during sleep. Even if you don’t remember waking up during the night, you may notice daytime sleepiness (such as falling asleep at work, while driving or when talking), and irritability or fatigue. You may also notice that you have morning headaches, forgetfulness, mood changes and a decreased interest in sex.

If you have symptoms of sleep apnea, your doctor may ask you to go to a sleep center for a sleep study. Tests done at the sleep center may reveal which kind of sleep apnea you have. You may need to take some equipment home with you to do a sleep study there.

​CPAP Devices for Sleep Apnea

One way to treat people who have sleep apnea is a continuous positive airway pressure device. A CPAP device has a mask, tubes and a fan. It uses air pressure to push your tongue forward and open your throat. This allows air to pass through your throat. It reduces snoring and prevents apnea disturbances.

You should put your CPAP device on whenever you sleep, even for naps. A CPAP device does not cure sleep apnea but, when you use the device correctly, your sleep problems should get much better.

Talk to your doctor if you think you have sleep apnea. Your doctor may ask you to do a sleep study. During your sleep study, you may try different levels of air pressure with a CPAP device to see which level helps. In general, heavier people and people who have severe apnea need higher air pressures. If you need a CPAP device, your doctor will help you choose one that is r​ight for you. 

Learn more about CPAP Devices​

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