Image Caption: Take a night flight into the restless world of sleep apnea. You'll see what sleep apnea looks like as a sleeper repeatedly stops breathing, gasps for breath, and awakens just enough to start breathing again. View, from the inside, how collapsed tissues block off breathing. Fly down into the myriad branches of the airways. Dr. Katherine Sharkey of Brown University and Dr. Cynthia Geyer of Canyon Ranch explain airway blockage and why it's usually due to anatomical features, such as an enlarged neck. You'll see the regions of the brain affected by sleep apnea. Obesity can cause sleep apnea, but evidence points to a reverse relationship as well: sleep apnea disrupts hormones, increases hunger, and raises insulin and glucose levels-leading to diabetes. Get close-up looks at other organs affected by sleep apnea: the blood vessels, heart, and lungs. You'll see polysomnography-overnight sleep monitoring-in action. Successful treatment gives the sleep apnea sufferer a new lease on life.
What is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder characterized by brief interruptions of breathing during sleep. These episodes usually last 10 seconds or more and occur repeatedly throughout the night. People with sleep apnea will partially awaken as they struggle to breathe, but in the morning they will not be aware of the disturbances in their sleep. The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), caused by relaxation of soft tissue in the back of the throat that blocks the passage of air. Central sleep apnea (CSA) is caused by irregularities in the brain's normal signals to breathe. Most people with sleep apnea will have a combination of both types. The hallmark symptom of the disorder is excessive daytime sleepiness. Additional symptoms of sleep apnea include restless sleep, loud snoring (with periods of silence followed by gasps), falling asleep during the day, morning headaches, trouble concentrating, irritability, forgetfulness, mood or behavior changes, anxiety, and depression. Not everyone who has these symptoms will have sleep apnea, but it is recommended that people who are experiencing even a few of these symptoms visit their doctor for evaluation. Sleep apnea is more likely to occur in men than women, and in people who are overweight or obese.
Is there any treatment?
There are a variety of treatments for sleep apnea, depending on an individual's medical history and the severity of the disorder. Most treatment regimens begin with lifestyle changes, such as avoiding alcohol and medications that relax the central nervous system (for example, sedatives and muscle relaxants), losing weight, and quitting smoking. Some people are helped by special pillows or devices that keep them from sleeping on their backs, or oral appliances to keep the airway open during sleep. If these conservative methods are inadequate, doctors often recommend continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), in which a face mask is attached to a tube and a machine that blows pressurized air into the mask and through the airway to keep it open. Also available are machines that offer variable positive airway pressure (VPAP) and automatic positive airway pressure (APAP). There are also surgical procedures that can be used to remove tissue and widen the airway. Some individuals may need a combination of therapies to successfully treat their sleep apnea.
What is the prognosis?
Untreated, sleep apnea can be life threatening. Excessive daytime sleepiness can cause people to fall asleep at inappropriate times, such as while driving. Sleep apnea also appears to put individuals at risk for stroke and transient ischemic attacks (TIAs, also known as "mini-strokes"), and is associated with coronary heart disease, heart failure, irregular heartbeat, heart attack, and high blood pressure. Although there is no cure for sleep apnea, recent studies show that successful treatment can reduce the risk of heart and blood pressure problems.
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Also called: Sleep-disordered breathing
Sleep apnea is a common disorder that causes your breathing to stop or get very shallow. Breathing pauses can last from a few seconds to minutes. They may occur 30 times or more an hour.
The most common type is obstructive sleep apnea. It causes your airway to collapse or become blocked during sleep. Normal breathing starts again with a snort or choking sound. People with sleep apnea often snore loudly. However, not everyone who snores has sleep apnea.
You are more at risk for sleep apnea if you are overweight, male, or have a family history or small airways. Children with enlarged tonsils may also get it.
Doctors diagnose sleep apnea based on medical and family histories, a physical exam, and sleep study results.
When your sleep is interrupted throughout the night, you can be drowsy during the day. People with sleep apnea are at higher risk for car crashes, work-related accidents, and other medical problems. If you have it, it is important to get treatment. Lifestyle changes, mouthpieces, surgery, and breathing devices can treat sleep apnea in many people.
NIH: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
The material on this site is for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. It should not be used to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Consult a licensed medical professional for the diagnosis and treatment of all medical conditions and before starting a new diet or exercise program. If you have a medical emergency, call 911 immediately.