One of the most common sleep problems, sleep apnea, is a disorder in which breathing is interrupted periodically throughout the night. These pauses, or gaps, in breathing may be accompanied by choking or gasping but rarely awaken the sleeping individual. An estimated 22 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea, many of them unaware of their condition.
What Causes Sleep Apnea?
There are two main types of sleep apnea: obstructive and central. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the throat muscles relax and droop during sleep, blocking the airway and causing breathing difficulty. It is by far the most common form of the disorder. Central sleep apnea is the brain failing to control breathing during sleep; this is rare.
The main sign of sleep apnea is chronic, loud snoring (link to snoring page). Other signs of poor sleep hygiene include daytime drowsiness, lack of concentration, poor blood oxygen levels, memory loss, irritability, and depression. You may experience frequent morning headaches and sore throats and wake up with shortness of breath and a dry mouth.
At most risk for sleep apnea are those who are male, overweight, and over the age of 40, though sleep apnea can—and does—affect people of both sexes and all ages. Other factors contributing to sleep apnea include natural aging, excessive or bulky throat tissue, large soft palate or uvula, small jaw, large neck, restless leg syndrome, chronic bronchitis, and oversized tonsils or adenoids.
Allergies, sinus infections, tobacco use, and alcohol all may increase the risk as well.
How Is Sleep Apnea Treated?
It is more than just a nuisance that robs you of sleep. Untreated sleep apnea and lack of quality sleep can lead to serious health issues such as lung disease, congestive heart failure, stroke, heart attack, high blood pressure, and cardiac arrhythmia. If you suspect you are suffering from sleep apnea, schedule a visit with your physician to perform a thorough physical examination and may set up a sleep study test.
You may be able to reduce the severity of your symptoms by implementing lifestyle changes. Try losing weight, breathing exercises, cutting back or eliminating alcohol (especially before bedtime), and quitting smoking. Sleeping on your side instead of your back and elevating your head may also help.
The preferred method of treatment for sleep apnea is continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). CPAP involves controlled bursts of air pumped into your throat while you sleep, delivered through a mask worn over the nose and mouth and attached to a machine. Other options for treatment include oral mouth guards that reposition the lower jaw and tongue, nasal breathing strips, and surgery.